Friday, May 13, 2011

What Is the What by Dave Eggers

The story of Valentino Achak Deng, a Dinka tribesman born in the town of Marial Bai in Southern Sudan. He's healthy and bright. By local standards, his family isn't poor.

Unfortunately, history with its grinding teeth has its sights set on Valentino and his people.

I chose a historically appropriate time to read Dave Eggers' What Is the What. July 9th of this year is set to be Independence Day for Southern Sudan. Like most Americans, I knew practically nothing of Southern Sudan, except for a vague sense of the terrible cultural devastation in Darfur.

As it turns out, Darfur is not even in Southern Sudan, and the genocide in Darfur is largely unrelated to the unrest and the killing in Southern Sudan, except that both regions are victims of exactly the same tyrannical regime in Khartoum. Incidentally, President Omar al-Bashir is still in power, and shortly before he formally loses the southern third of his country, he will pass the 22 year mark as dictator. Just thought you all might like to be reminded.

This is my third Eggers novel -- and Deng himself argues convincingly in the preface that it is indeed a novel, with large portions fictionalized by himself and Eggers, although the major events depicted are, unfortunately, true to what actually happened. Eggers' own writing style shines through especially in the scenes from Deng's childhood. Eggers has a true talent for writing rambunctious young boys realistically.

Eggers has gotten some heat from people who wonder why he would presume to insert his white American self between Deng and his readership. Personally, I have no problem with Eggers channeling Deng's story for a mass audience. Let's think of the vast number of readers - including, let's be honest, myself - who would never have heard of Deng if he hadn't been allied with Eggers' literary celebrity.

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