This is a very odd novel. If we can call it that. I like to think we can. Having said this, What is the What is very much based on the experiences of one person – indeed, Eggers himself said that he was not sure whether he would write a biography or a novel. If nothing else, it is probably one of the truest portraits of modern Sudan, in any format.
Valentino Achak Deng is a young Sudanese man who has recently come to America to live. He opens his door one day, when someone asks if they can briefly use his phone, and finds himself on the ground, being mugged. In an attempt to placate the people who have mugged him, he begins to tell them the story of his life. Growing up in a small village in the south of Sudan, he finds himself in the middle of a civil war, on the run from the government, and the rebels, unsure of whether his family is still alive, and whether or not he himself will survive much longer.
Eggers has a very specific purpose in this novel. Having spent months talking to the real Valentino (on whose life this book is based), he essentially retells the story of the Sudanese Lost Boys, and the struggles they faced, both in their home country, as well as the refugee camps in neighbouring countries – Ethiopia and Kenya – as well as the troubles they still face after relocation into America. While this is certainly one of the strengths of the novel (precious few other books are talking about modern Africa), it can also be a burden. The pacing is very inconsistent – it begins very strongly, the middle of the book drags on, and then the end happens very, very quickly.
I think that this attempt to inform occasionally gets in the way of Eggers’ atempt to tell a good story. While he makes extensive use of flashbacks, he is dealing with three different time periods, and they can get quite confusing after a while. Perhaps having spent so much time writing very postmodern books, a switch into realism was a bit tricky. Having said this, it is certainly an effective way to highlight both lives of the Lost Boys of Sudan, and the American parts are a really interesting look into integration of an entire culture into a new land, and the difficulties this throws up.
A quick note on some of the criticism this book, and Dave Eggers, has faced. A lot of people have complained that a white person should not have written this novel – one critic finds the novel’s “innocent expropriation of another man’s identity … a post-colonial arrogance.” I’m not sure how much collaboration Eggers and Deng actually had in writing the book – I suspect there was quite a lot – but I don’t think I really agree with Lee Siegel on this one. If you look at the other charity work Eggers has done over the years, I think this is just a larger part of Eggers’ attempt to inform as many people as he can.
In the end, I’m not totally enamoured with What is the What. It is not a bad book, and it is certainly an important book, but it took me a long time to connect with all of it. I certainly learned a lot about something I never really understood, so I suppose Eggers has done his job well.