What is the What, by Dave Eggers

Eggers is best known for having written the modestly titled A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), which I have not read. His 2009 nonfiction work Zeitoun tells the story of a Syrian-born American who was lived in New Orleans when Katrina hit and was wrongly accused of terrorism by gun-happy soldiers. You can guess the overall arc of that story from there (except perhaps that he survives the experience), but the story was well-told and seemed thoroughly researched, so I decided to give this book a go as well. What is the What is billed as an “autobiographical novel”, by which Eggers means that he made up some details for narrative purposes but that he worked hard to create something that the book’s subject, Valentino Achak Deng, considers a faithful representation of his life story (“I told [him] what I knew and what I could remember, and from that material he created this work of art”).

The overall framing device of the book – flashbacks from his life as a refugee born in what is now South Sudan, as told to people he encounters during one day in his new life in Atlanta, Georgia – grew somewhat cumbersome, and the general style was clearly due more to Eggers than to Deng, but the first person perspective of an unusual life was worth it. The book helpfully assumes no knowledge of Sudan’s various post-independence civil wars and includes plenty of basic history of the region. The situation in the country struck me as the opposite of the post-independence India/Pakistan division – here the British had always administered the north and south of the country separately, but decided to merge them when Sudan was granted self rule. The wisdom of this decision is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that civil war raged in the country for 38 of the 65 years which elapsed between the end of British rule and South Sudan becoming independent in 2011. All of which is to say that Deng, who has lived a life well worth telling, is a remarkable person, and Eggers has told his story in an engaging fashion. I was particularly impressed because stories which move back and forth between societies and persons with and without power and privilege are difficult to tell. When Sudanese refugees squabble amongst themselves over access to humanitarian aid in the US and are not simply uniformly and unquestioningly grateful to their benefactors, or when they rant against a country which seems to help them with one hand and push them back with another, there are stories to be told which are too complex for a short feel-good newspaper feature, and Eggers has the patience to deal with these in a sensitive fashion.