What is the What by Dave Eggers
Hardcover: 475 pages
Publisher: McSweeney's; 1 edition (October 25, 2006)
“So the first man lifted his head to God and asked what this was, this What. ‘What is the What?’ the first man asked. And God said to the man, ‘I cannot tell you. Still, you have to choose. You have to choose between the cattle and the What.’ Well then. The man and the woman could see the cattle right there in front of them, and they knew that with cattle they would eat and live with great contentment. They could see the cattle were God’s most perfect creation, and that the cattle carried something godlike within themselves. They knew that they would live in peace with the cattle, and that if they helped the cattle eat and drink, the cattle would give man their milk, would multiply every year and keep the monyjang happy and healthy. So the first man and woman knew they would be fools to pass up the cattle for this idea of the What. So the man chose cattle. And God has proven that this was the correct decision. God was testing the man. He was testing the man, to see if he could appreciate what he had been given, if he could take pleasure in the county before him, rather than trade it for the unknown. And because the first man was able to see this, God has allowed us to prosper. The Dinka live and grow as the cattle live and grow.”
This is the Sudanese folktale upon which the title of this fictional biography is based. It is not completely fictional; in fact it’s based on the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a refugee from Sudan (the current location of the Darfur genocide) and one of the Lost Boys (the boys from the generation of Sudanese who lost their childhood while trekking hundreds of miles from their homes in search of safety during a brutal civil war). It is classified as fictional because some of the dialogues that occur have been fictionalized; other than that, it is the life story of a young boy who is constantly running from a danger few of us can even imagine, and the story of a young man in an America that is quite like he imagined it would be.
Born in Marial Bai the son of a wealthy merchant, Achak (Valentino’s name at that time; his given name was Valentino, but it was forgotten until he encountered the priest who had named him in a refugee camp.) had always had a good life despite the lack of electricity, cars, and other modern “necessities.” He was just a young boy when his village was attacked and completely destroyed by the Baggara, and he witnessed every moment of its destruction and he witnessed the murder of many of the clansmen he had known since birth. He managed to escape and run away, and he kept on running, even when it hurt.
Over the next couple of years he was always running from the destruction and murder. He joined a group of boys heading to Pinyudo, a refugee camp. The refugees were soon kicked out of Pinyudo when the Ethiopian government was taken over by rebels, and they moved on to several other refugee camps before settling in Kakuma. It was there that he lived most of his life. He fell in love, got a paying job, and made friends.
Finally, America decided to take in the Lost Boys, and Dominic, as Valentino was then called, was one of the last ones chosen to fly to the land of opportunity. Unluckily for him, his flight was scheduled on September 11, 2001, so he had to wait a couple weeks before embarking on the journey.
Once in America Valentino discovers that it isn’t as wonderful as he thought. He is faced with the challenge of earning enough money to make rent while going to school. He isn’t accepted into any colleges no matter how hard he tries. And he is robbed blind because he is nice enough to allow a woman into his apartment so that she can make a call. Not exactly America the Beautiful he was expecting.
It is a heart wrenching story that pulls on the heart-strings, horrifies, and gladdens all at the same time. The horrors that Valentino has witnessed sound like something out of a storybook, which may be one of the book’s few faults. The story seems too horrible to be true, so I found myself believing it to be just another sad story, not the real-life tragedy that it is.
It is very lengthy and not for the faint of heart, but if you have a large chunk of time in your hands, then I definitely recommend it. I do not recommend reading it if you are just going to read a little bit every day because it takes away from the story because it is meant to be soaked in as a whole, not as little pieces.