A Truly Heartbreaking Work
Posted by: Keir Graff
So, on Saturday night, I finished reading What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, by Dave Eggers. We received the galley too late for a review in print Booklist (the novel’s publication date is October 25, and we’re finalizing the November 15 issue this week), so my review will be a Booklist Online exclusive.
(Yesterday I started reading The God of Animals, by Aryn Kyle, but I can’t find a cover image or an author site so I’m not linking to it.)
Eggers’ book tells the story of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese man who was one of the so-called “Lost Boys of Sudan.” He was a young boy when the murahaleen, Muslim militias armed by the government in Khartoum, burned his mostly Christian village. Fleeing the attack, he was separated from his family and then became one of many orphan boys (and some girls) making long, dangerous treks in search of safety. He endured exhaustion, hunger, and illness, and faced the dangers posed by lions, bandits, murahaleen, and even the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. (Though the SPLA fought the government and the murahaleen on behalf of the people of southern Sudan, the hardened SPLA soldiers were not always friends to the refugees.) He survived ambush and battles, and after living in several refugee camps, finally found safety–though not an easy life–in Kakuma, a more permanent camp in Kenya. In his twenties, he was finally given an opportunity to emigrate to the U.S., a move he saw as nothing short of salvation.
The book has an unusual framing device. Now living in Atlanta, a too-trusting Deng opens his door to strangers and is beaten and robbed at gunpoint. Lying on the floor, tied up with his telephone cord, he begins to silently tell his story to one of his captors. As we follow him through the rest of the night and a miserable day, he continues these internal monologues: to the indifferent police officer who answers his call for help; to a jaded functionary at the hospital where he waits hours for treatment; to the affluent patrons who arrive at the health club where he must return to work.
(By the way, there’s a good documentary called The Lost Boys of Sudan that I thought of more than once while reading What Is the What.)
According to the preface and an interview, Deng originally planned on writing his own book, but “learned that [he] was not ready to do this.” So Eggers, working from interviews, wrote, in Valentino’s voice, a fictionalized autobiography.
Despite Eggers’ obvious care for Deng and passion for the project (and despite his obvious familiarity with fictionalized memoir), as I began reading I found myself thinking about Eggers’ right to write the book. If they had collaborated so closely, why was Deng’s name relegated to the subtitle, rather than the author line? (After all, in celebrity as-told-to’s, celebrities can claim authorship–isn’t Deng the celebrity here?) Would this be a case of a successful white artist mining the life experience of a suffering black man in order to boost his own credibility?
Not that I’m a member of the correctness police, but I did ask myself these questions.
I didn’t worry about it long. In terms of material gain, all proceeds are going to The Valentino Achak Deng Foundation (whose Web site, however, is not yet active). And in terms of intent, well–who knows what motivates another person, but it’s a book of subtlety and deep feeling. Eggers may be continuing to grow as an artist, or it may simply be a byproduct of his decision to write in Deng’s voice, but he’s moved himself to the background and his subject’s story leaps off the page.
It may seem unfair to talk so much about the circumstances surrounding the book before getting to the book itself, but with a book like this, I don’t know if it’s possible to talk about the book without considering the subtext. As a reader, I couldn’t help but wonder what was real and what was invention–or, if I accepted that it was nearly all true, then which observations were Deng’s, and which were Eggers’ observations of Deng? And because novels must be neater than life, which decisions were simply editorial expediencies?
The story’s power is such that readers won’t be overly distracted by such thoughts, though I’m sure I won’t be alone in thinking them. On the other hand, writing it as a novel might be the perfect solution to the problems of memoirs, which are notoriously unreliable to begin with. If the job is not to give a documentary rendering, but to tease out the deeper truths, then it’s probably best to dispense with a desire for exactitude and to piece together a story that gets it right, even if a few of the details are wrong. If Deng was, as he says, “still taking classes in basic writing at Georgia Perimeter College,” then I think we can safely say that the book written by Eggers is a better book–if perhaps slightly less authentic–than the one not written, and therefore more people will read it. (There’s also the slight boost offered by Eggers’ own status as a literary celebrity.)
If there is painful irony in Deng’s experience of the U.S., then there may also be irony in the fact that his autobiography is written by a famous American. But he seems happy with the book, and I am, too. As Deng endures almost unimaginable hardship and danger, it’s gripping, but because Eggers’ treats his subject with neither reverence nor condescension–there are moments of humor that feel wholly appropriate–we’re left with a portrait that feels astonishingly human. What Is the What succeeds in doing what a novel can do better than any other form, which is to make us feel and understand the deeper truths of another human being’s experience.