My first surprise on opening the cover of Dave Eggers novel What is the What was the subtitle The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng. As my mind struggled to reconcile finding the word "autobiography" on a book plucked from the fiction shelves, I proceeded on to the book's content - a first person memoir of the life of a refugee. Eggers' voice disappeared as the pages turned and the story became solely that of Deng one of Sudan's "Lost Boys" struggling to make a life for himself in America while haunted by the memories of the existence he left behind.
As the story unfolds in the present, Valentino takes his encounters with strangers in America and uses them to mentally reflect on his experiences in Africa. By silently telling others his story (which translates as a complete narration to the reader) he seeks their understanding, their sympathy and their grace and as a reader I couldn't help being captivated by his turbulent journey. There is joy in his childhood in a remote village where a bicycle is a prized and wondrous possession. There is fear in his flight across the wilds of Sudan narrowly avoiding lions and slower killers like disease and starvation. There is desperation in his life at the refugee camp dreaming of something better for himself and wondering if his family has survived as well. There is awkwardness to his arrival in America and the culture clash of living as an outsider in a new homeland.
What is the What is a highly emotional and moving book. Eggers has expertly blurred the lines between fact and fiction to create a fully realized and seamless narration of hardship and endurance in the life of a refugee. With an overarching theme of compassion for others in the face of evil, Valentino Achak Deng's story is immensely powerful. This is a book that will stay with you, will keep you thinking and and reflecting on it, long after the back cover is closed.
At the risk of providing something of a spoiler, the title comes from a Sudanese story in which God first gave cattle to men. Given the importance of livestock in Africa's harsh climate, the cow was the ultimate gift. According to the legend, God gave man the choice that he could either keep the cow or have "The What". This option prompted the man to ask, "What is the what?" to which God responded that man was unable to have the answer and must decide between the known gift and an unknown "what". I won't ruin the story by explaining this any further but the question, and thus the title, has a recurring appearance in the book and the ultimate answer to the question becomes a thought provoking point that I still find myself reflecting upon. Overall, this was a really amazing book that I'd highly recommend to anyone looking for a biography of a refugee's experience or anyone seeking an excellent narration of life in Sudan.