Monday, May 14, 2012
Book review: What is the What
What is the What is the story of the life of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan --some 20,000 boys displaced by the Sudanese Civil War in the 80s. The boys, separated from their families, walked across a thousand or more miles and three countries to seek refuge in Ethiopia and later Kenya. Along the way, they suffered military attacks by government forces, brutal conscription into rebel armies, starvation, disease, privation, and attacks by lions, crocodiles, and hyenas. Bit of a tough road, wouldn't you say?
It gets worse.
The story is told by Valentino himself, with the assistance of writer Dave Eggers, through the prism of Valentino's life in the United States where he has been resettled as part of a program arranged by the United Nations. America hasn't proved to be the promise that it seemed when Valentino lived in a refugee camp in a remote part of Kenya. Much of the book is related as Valentino lies bound, hand and foot, on the floor of his apartment while armed thieves take his belongings.
What is the What is a great book for putting things in perspective. Getting a taste of Valentino's story has a way of making the everyday problems I endure seem rather petty. Got a problem getting along with your boss? Try swimming across a crocodile-infested river while soldiers shoot at you from the shore, instead!
The other members of my book club greatly enjoyed the book. And I enjoyed it as well, but not as much. In some ways, the book suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. Is it an autobiography? Or is it a novel? Valentino writes in the foreword that the book is his personal recollection of events, but that readers should make allowance for the tricks of human memory and for the artistic license implied by the term "novel."
That's all well and good. It's an important story that must be told.
I was slightly put off, however, by the detachment. The book is written as if Valentino were verbally recounting his memories. It lacks a sense of immediacy and is therefore not as compelling. Whatever. It's a minor complaint.
A few years ago, I saw a flick about the Lost Boys of Sudan (God Grew Tired of Us), so I was already somewhat familiar with the subject-matter. Valentino has set up a foundation to help the suffering people of southern Sudan. It's called, the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation. All the proceeds from What is the What go there. It's a worthy cause, as anyone who reads the book will know.
What is the What offers valuable insights into an alien, savage reality. It's a reality known to untold millions of the people on this planet --people who didn't have the good fortune to be born in a land of peace and plenty.