The Lost Boy

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Reviewed by Gary Krist
Sunday, December 17, 2006

WHAT IS THE WHAT

The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng

By Dave Eggers

McSweeney's. 478 pp. $26

"God has a problem with me," complains Valentino Achak Deng, the subject of Dave Eggers's extraordinary new novel, What Is the What. Coming from almost any other person on the planet, this lament would appear hopelessly self-pitying. But coming from Valentino, a Sudanese refugee, it sounds almost like an understatement. At a time when the field of autobiography seems dominated by hyperbolic accounts of what might be called dramas of privilege (substance abuse, eating disorders, unloving parents, etc.), What Is the What is a story of real global catastrophe -- a work of such simple power, straightforward emotion and genuine gravitas that it reminds us how memoirs can transcend the personal to illuminate large, public tragedies as well.

The book does this despite being, strictly speaking, a novel. Valentino, who survived almost 15 years of civil war and refugee-camp exile before coming to the United States in 2001, in fact does exist, but the book that purports to be his autobiography is actually a fictional recreation by Eggers. No secret is made of the fact that some of the characters in the book are composites, some episodes are invented, and much of the storyline has been reordered and reshaped for narrative effect. The result, however, is a document that -- unlike so many "real" autobiographies -- exudes authenticity.

The secret of the book's credibility lies in its author's success at excising his own oversized personality from the narrative. The voice of What Is the What-- sincere, articulate (if somewhat stilted) and immensely appealing -- has been distilled from countless hours of conversation with the real Valentino, and it bears no trace of the media-savvy postmodern ironist who wrote A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and You Shall Know Our Velocit y! Such literary impersonations are not easy to perform convincingly, but aside from noticing the occasional over-sophisticated turn of phrase, I was utterly convinced by the Sudanese refugee who speaks to us in these pages.

The story Valentino tells is harrowing. Anyone who has read the newspapers carefully will know the basic outline of the crisis in Sudan in the 1980s and '90s, when an Islamist government in the capital of Khartoum attempted to subjugate Christian and animist rebels from the south. But Eggers gives this history real immediacy by filtering it through the subjective experience of a single individual. Valentino is just 7 years old when his Dinka village of Marial Bai is raided by a gang of government-supported Arab militiamen. He is able to elude the marauding horsemen, but he can only watch as his village is burned and his people are murdered, immolated or kidnapped. Unsure whether his parents are alive or dead, he joins a group of similarly bereft children -- some of Sudan's so-called Lost Boys -- and sets out on a cross-country trek to what he hopes is sanctuary in Ethiopia.

But the march itself proves to be an ordeal as horrific as the one he has just escaped. Disease, hunger, lion attacks and the depredations of rebels, raiders and unfriendly locals take a high toll on the marchers. "It is very easy for a boy to die in Sudan," Valentino observes at one point, with awful understatement. At times, Valentino believes that all he need do is stop and close his eyes for death to come.

Nor are the boys safe once they reach Ethiopia. During their march, Valentino and his friends keep their spirits up by indulging in elaborate "mythic visions" of their destination as a paradise where all their troubles will be over and they can wait out the war in luxurious tranquility. But after they arrive, the fall of the Ethiopian government turns the local river people into their enemies, and Valentino finds himself once again plunged into a hellish chaos where even the most unthreatening presence can turn suddenly malevolent:

" -- Come here! a woman said. I looked to find the source of the voice, and turned to see an Ethiopian woman in a soldier's uniform. . . .

" -- Don't fear me, she said. -- I am just a woman! I am a mother trying to help you boys. Come to me, children! I am your mother! Come to me!

"The unknown boys ran toward her. . . . When they were twenty feet from her, the woman turned, lifted a gun from the grass, and with her eyes full of white, she shot the taller boy through the heart."

In the end, though, What Is the What (an awkward, self-conscious title that alludes obscurely to an old Dinka creation myth) is not the unrelenting nightmare that such scenes might suggest. Eggers makes sure to give space to Valentino's less gruesome experiences, leavening the narrative with episodes -- some of them upbeat and a few even hilarious -- from his subsequent 10 years at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.

But even when Valentino finally leaves Africa to start anew in Atlanta, nothing is easy for him. Education and jobs are hard to come by, and the lawless thugs of Atlanta prove to be almost as brutal as those of the Sudanese desert. "I am tired of needing help," he complains after being robbed and held captive in his own apartment. "I need help in Atlanta, I needed help in Ethiopia and Kakuma, and I am tired of it." His frustration is understandable. Still lost but no longer a boy, Valentino really wants nothing more than the opportunity to make his own way, unmolested by the upheavals of ethnic and racial conflict.

Unfortunately, these upheavals show no signs of ending soon. The recent crisis in Darfur (just the latest chapter in Sudan's troubled history) suggests that the paroxysms of African politics will be creating Valentino Achak Dengs for years to come. And while balanced, objective journalism may do a better job of explaining the complexities of such situations to a distracted world, autobiography, with its limited but urgent perspective, could be what's needed to make us truly take notice. Fictional or not, this book, at its heart, is a cry for acknowledgment of a very real, ongoing tragedy. "How blessed are we to have each other," Valentino reminds his American hosts at the close of this simple, sad and important book. "How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist."

Gary Krist is the author of "Extravagance" and four other works of fiction. His first nonfiction book, "The White Cascade," will be published in February.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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