What is the What
Hamish Hamilton, 2007
Darfur is hot right now. The humanitarian crisis in Sudan has mobilised the collective might of liberal Hollywood, and a multilateral peacekeeping force is attempting to stem the violence – or was about to at the time of writing. The publication of What is the What in 2006 in the US (and in the UK in 2007) could not have been more fortuitously timed: in it, the American author Dave Eggers recounts the story of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee and one of the fabled Lost Boys, who resettled in the US in 2001. Eggers draws attention to the atrocities still being carried out in Sudan – and is thus able to link his book to a wave of international concern. Unfortunately, the book is undermined by its insistence upon its own relevance: it is unclear whether it is a lesson in political science and current events, or, as is also repeatedly declared, a novel. Of course some of the best novels are intensely political, but in this particular case the combination does not quite mesh.
Valentino became “Lost” when he was forced to flee his village in South Sudan after it was raided by the muraheleen – the South’s version of the janjaweed currently laying waste to Darfur. He was six years old. Thus began the journey that would take him, in an ever-increasing and diminishing throng of wandering children, all the way across southern Sudan to refugee camps in Ethiopia and then Kenya before finally reaching, after 15 years of transience, the land of the free and the home of the brave. Valentino’s journey is truly a heartbreaking story of staggering fortitude, and the narrative is gripping, despite the fact we know its eventual outcome. Boys in his troupe are picked off by lions or strafed by helicopters, or simply become lost as they walk through the dark:
Slowing down for even a few moments would mean losing the group. It happened through the night: a boy would fall off the pace, or would step out of line to urinate, and then would have to call out to find the line again. Those who did this were scorned and sometimes punched or kicked. Making noise could bring attention to the group and this was undesirable when the night had been retaken by animals.
At times the narrative takes on an aspect of magical realism reminiscent of African picaresques such as the Nigerian writer Ben Okri’s The Famished Road (1991). Valentino comes across what seems to be a ghost in the desert, which feeds him and patches his wounds before returning him to his group, which had scattered after an attack; a uniformed woman lures small boys fleeing a massacre to her with the siren call “I am your mother” before shooting them through the heart. In an episode that seems particularly suited to the genre for its gruesome surrealism, one of Valentino’s friends is interned with hundreds of other boys in a vast shed where they are farmed for blood transfusions for government soldiers. The horror is real enough, but so are the examples of humanity: an Ethiopian woman who nurtures Valentino as her child, a teacher who leads the boys across Sudan to Ethiopia, and a girl who refuses to let Valentino stop walking and thus saves his life. Once Valentino has reached the relatively stable, if stultifying camps in Kenya, a Japanese NGO worker hires him to co-run a sports initiative.
This compelling narrative of survival is framed by a particularly cruel day in Atlanta, where Valentino was resettled, in which he is robbed and viciously beaten, before being ignored by the emergency workers – both police and hospital staff – who ought to have helped him. After waiting in the hospital for 14 sleepless hours to be seen by a doctor before finally leaving untreated, he drives to his job at the health club where he works as a receptionist, to start a new day. During this ordeal, conscious of the warped irony of his situation, Valentino addresses his various tormentors and his ignorers, and tells them his life story.
Eggers captures the “if only you knew – if you even care to know” desperation of the lonely refugee in a bewildering and often hostile host country effectively. However, the chance to finally let rip with an account of all Valentino has suffered – traumatic as the experience of “telling” itself might be – does not simply serve to post facto educate his various interlocutors. It has a further pedagogic purpose. As Valentino explains in his preface, the story is told with the express aim of “reach[ing] out to others to help them understand the atrocities many successive governments of Sudan committed before and during the civil war.”
Since Eggers is channelling Valentino – at his behest – to “serve as the specific that might illuminate the universal”, as Eggers put it in a recent essay in the Guardian, a concerted effort is made to connect the dots between the Sudan’s two wars, one in the South (which was ostensibly resolved by the 2005 peace accords) and one in Darfur. The book has thus far proven effective at both raising the consciousness of its readers and serving as a rallying cry for intervention. Indeed, in the same essay, Eggers was able to cite his own role in getting Steven Spielberg to urge the Chinese government to put pressure on Khartoum to curtail its activities in Darfur and proceed with the peace process there. Soft power moves in mysterious ways.
At one level, the book’s activist purpose is commendable, in that it aims to increase awareness among the population of the most powerful nation in the world (for the target audience is undoubtedly American) of potentially preventable – or at least mitigable – atrocities. In doing so, it reinforces the revived belief in intervention so tarnished in the 1990s by the operational fiascos of Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia. It is clear from Eggers’s book that the prevailing hope among refugees such as Valentino is that the US will intervene, a hope echoed in a scene in “What is the What” in which the capture of Saddam Hussein prompts a murmur of expectation through the Sudanese diaspora community that Omar Bashir, the president of Sudan, will be next. This desire now seems to be shared by many. However, intervention is complex in practice, and worthy causes do not necessarily benefit from glamorisation, which can often serve to smooth out the rough edges of any context and thus pave the way for disappointment when quick fix solutions fail. As the academic Mahmood Mamdani presciently observed in “The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency”, his polemic in the 8 March 2007 issue of the London Review of Books, some of those calling for an end to intervention in Iraq are demanding an intervention in Darfur – as if there were no cautionary tale to be discerned from the former.
The consciousness-raising exercise is also problematic because it jars with the execution of What is the What as a novel. In essays in various newspapers and magazines since the book’s publication, Eggers has justified his decision to novelise the narrative by arguing that as a (self-identified) journalist he had been trained to recount the objective truth and nothing but that truth. Since Valentino’s memory of the whole of his life could not be exact, such a clean presentation was not possible. However, Eggers felt his own voice could not be used, as, “my telling of Valentino’s story, in my voice, would be distracting and totally incorrect”. There are two problems with this explanation. The first is that the book nonetheless exerts a strong claim to truth, existing within the entirely factual context of Sudan’s civil wars. At times it even feels as though events unrelated to the narrative are being crammed in for verification purposes, as in the mention of the sit-in by some 3,000 Sudanese refugees close to the UNHCR Regional Office in Cairo in 2005, which was violently “cleared” by Egyptian security forces, leaving hundreds dead, a horrendous incident but one that bears little direct relation to Valentino’s own life-story. However, while the account includes a litany of examples of government-instigated brutality, Eggers is nowhere near so forthcoming on the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army war crimes in South Sudan, although the SPLA’s atrocity count has at times rivalled Khartoum’s. As its claim to the truth is consistently unclear, so is its authorship: a subtitle reads “The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng” but this does not appear on the cover; the copyright is Dave Eggers – ultimately, the book’s “voice” seems to waver between the two.
The second problem is inherent to the complicated process of ventriloquising a cause. In the words of Jean Genet, author of Prisoner of Love (2003), a rich and deeply messy memoir of his time with the Palestinian fedayeen,: “once we see in the need to ‘translate’ the obvious need to ‘betray’, we shall see the temptation to betray as something desirable, comparable perhaps to erotic exaltation.” Just as we read disaster chronicles such as What is the What at least in part for the experience of armchair empathy, I wonder whether Eggers is writing about Valentino not simply out of a humanitarian impulse, but also to indulge his own Africa fetish. (See also his effort, You Shall Know Our Velocity (2003).) Unfortunately, Eggers is not an elegant enough writer to acknowledge this complication, hence his awkward insistence on both novelising Valentino’s story, and offering it as testimony to a greater cause. (Genet unabashedly lusted after the fedayeen, even as he mourned their desperate situation.) Interestingly, the social critique is at its clearest, and the narrative at its strongest, when Valentino is being mistreated in America. Given that this is Eggers’s home territory, and that he treads so clumsily elsewhere, perhaps he might be best off sticking to it in the future.
Emily Speers Mears is a writer, translator and equestrienne, and an MPhil student in International Relations at Balliol College, Oxford. Since July 2006, she has worked as an occasional intern for Professor Barbara Harrell-Bond, founding director of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford, and Advisor to the Forced Migration and Refugee Studies Programme of the American University in Cairo. More information on Sudanese and other nationality refugees can be found on their website .