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Books: ‘What is the What’ a harrowing but compelling story of Sudan

“What is the What,” by Dave Eggers. Vintage Press. 2006. 535 pp. $15.95 paperback.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
dp1@salisburypost.com
When events as devastating and enormous as war happen outside our country, we have a hard time wrapping our brains around it.
Most of us don’t grasp what’s really going on in Somalia or Darfur. We hear about it on the news, but in an abstract way ó rebels bomb this or that airport, a marketplace is attacked. We shake our heads about how awful it is and feel good that it isn’t happening here.
“What is the What” brings the decades-long civil war in Sudan into focus, as one of the Lost Boys tells his story.
Dave Eggers writes what Valentino Achak Deng tells him ó because Valentino wants the world to know that it was real, that thousands of boys ó “unaccompanied minors” ó trudged across Sudan to Ethiopia and beyond, finally settling in Kakuma, a refuge camp on lifeless land in Kenya.
Valentino has many names on his journey. As a child, he is Achak to his friends. In one camp, he is Gone Far, because his village, Marial Bai, is so far away. At Kakuma, he is one of several Dominics, nicknamed by an absent-minded drama teacher. To the girl who saves him from dying on the road, he is Sleeper.
In the preface, Valentino writes, “… it should be noted that all of the major events in the book are true. The book is historically accurate, and the world I have known is not different from the one depicted within these pages.”
He writes that between May 16, 1983, and Jan. 9, 2005, more than “two and a half million people died of war and war-related causes in Sudan, over four million people were internally displaced in southern Sudan and nearly two million southern Sudanese took refuge in foreign countries.”
That’s the clean way to put it. Valentino’s tells the details.
As a 7-year-old, he lives in Marial Bai, a village that operates more or less in the Stone Age ó there is one bicycle in the village and everyone lives in thatched huts. His father has a store in the village, his mother is one of three wives, all of whom have children. In their world, they live well.
It all ends when the murahaleen (mujahadin in our language) burst into the small village on horseback, firing their guns with abandon, setting fire to the grass huts, kidnapping women and children to sell as slaves, gunning down the men.
The description of the terror that rains down on these peaceful people is horrendous. So much violence, so much carnage, children seeing the burned bodies of their families. No nightmare should be this horrible.
Achak, as he is known then, runs with his mother into the forest, but she is slow and soon realizes her son can escape more quickly without her.
Thus begins his journey as a Lost Boy.
Imagine a 7-year-old running wildly through the countryside, at night, alone, traumatized by what he has seen and with no idea what to do but run. There are lions and hyenas all around, and dim human figures who are as deadly as the wild animals.
Here is just one incident in his flight:
“They shot twice at me, but I escaped and continued to run through the thicket. They did not pursue me … I ran through the bush, looking for my people or a well-traveled way, finding none, and when the darkness came I had no hope of seeing a road or footpath.
“… After some time, I heard the heavy breathing of a man. Even by his breath I could tell it was a large man, a suffering man.
“…He turned to me, but his face had been ripped from his skull. His skin had melted. It was wet and pink and the whites of his eyes were protruding and unblinking, He had lost the lids that covered them.”
When Achak stumbles on the group of orphaned boys walking across Sudan to Ethiopia, the journey is hard and hungry. People in surviving villages chase them off, not wanting to share their meager food supplies and afraid the boys will bring disease.
Starving and thirsty, the boys walk on and on and on, losing friends and strangers to soldiers, disease, dehydration. Achak is thrilled to find his friend William K, only to watch him slowly die, finally just lying down and taking his last breath.
Incredibly, the boys keep moving, headed to a refugee camp in Ethiopia called Pinyudo. Once there, the Sudan’s strict caste system puts the boys at the bottom of the camp, forced to go into the forest to fetch wood or to the crocodile-infested river to gather water. They are easily expendable.
Eventually, as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army recruits soldiers and makes their presence stronger and stronger, the opposing side, as well as soldiers from a crumbling Ethiopia, come to destroy the camp.
The boys are on the run again. Again they must cross a river, when most can’t swim, while soldiers fire at them.
It seems there will be no end to the suffering these children must endure.
And as Achak, or Valentino, as he is known in America, tells about his past from his present, the persecution continues. The book begins as he is being robbed in his apartment, beaten and tied up. Eggers structures the book so that Valentino is telling his story to the boy left to guard him, to the man behind the desk at the emergency room, to the patrons of the health club where he works. He tells it silently, but with great heart.
And that’s what saves this book from being a complete nightmare. Achak/Dominic/ Valentino has great heart. How else would he have survived? Amid the abject misery of the camps, he continues, he grows up, he makes a path. He’s not always successful or appreciated. He begins to wonder why God continues to punish him.
But he goes on. And in this atmosphere, that is victory.
The story helps to explain not only the horrors the boys survived, but the complexity of the war itself. Readers will learn a great deal about the complex relationships among the African countries, many of which are in the throes of wars.
And one of the most interesting parts of the story is how the boys, many of them now young men, struggle in America. In a culture of excess, they learn quickly to want more and to want it immediately. The old caste system comes back into play. A leader of their rescue is accused of numerous insufficiencies and resigns, exhausted and disappointed.
Nothing is as easy as the boys had dreamed of. Jobs and school are elusive, but Valentino doesn’t lose hope for long. He has come so far. As the book ends, he determines to leave Atlanta, finish school and go back to Sudan, to help rebuild his country. It is his responsibility. His duty. He is willing to give up electricity, cell phones, air conditioning, all the wonders of America, to save his people, bring them forward while nurturing the best of the past.
“What is the what,” you ask. Valentino’s father tells his young son, the What is the unknown thing, the choice over the horizon, the thing you can’t see or touch. It is not what sits in front of you. It is the possible, or the impossible, you can never be sure.
Valentino chooses the What and then tells his story.
“Whatever I do, however I find a way to live, I will tell these stories.”

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