Michael Scott's Reviews > What Is the What

What Is the What by Dave Eggers
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's review
Dec 27, 2011

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bookshelves: anthropology, bio, historical-fiction, horror, politics
Read from December 17 to 19, 2011

When I first looked at this book, I thought I was never going to read it. A "fictionalized autobiography" (as Dave Eggers called it)?! A story about the horrors of war?! A story about Sudan, of all places?! In the end, after postponing for many months, I picked up the book and ... couldn't stop reading. After finishing, a number of new questions arose: How much of this is fiction? How much of this is the exclusive story of Valentino Achak Deng, the main character? I decided to read some of the books written on the topic: the earlier Escape from Slavery: The True Story of My Ten Years in Captivity (2003) and They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan (2005), and the somewhat later published God Grew Tired of Us: A Memoir (2007). Having read They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan, and a number of official (UN-sanctioned) and media accounts, I decided I could answer the new questions.

(A brief historical background is needed to understand this book and perhaps my review.) "Lost Boys" is an American term defining the group of over 20,000 children of Dinka and Nuer ethnicity who were forced to flee their family and land as a consequence of the Second Sudanese Civil War (1980s to around 2005). Motivated in part by the sharia law imposed by the (Northern) Sudanese government in Khartoum---the South is predominantly animist or Christian--- and in part by the discovery of oil-rich terrain in the South, this war may have taken over 2,000,000 lives and surely displaced several million people. Southern Sudan became independent after a referendum in January 2011.

What is the What is the story of Valentino Achak Deng, a Lost Boy from the village of Marial Bai, a large village close to Aweil, in the Northern Bahr el Ghazal. Dave Eggers takes an interesting approach: in his story, Achak is again in mortal danger, this time in his adoptive country, and from his dialogue with his perceived wrong-doers the story is born. In this story, Achak narrates about his early life, his crossing of Sudan to escape the outset of the war, his life in refugee camps (first in Ethiopia, then in Kenya), his first months in the US, and his current life there. The writing is fresh, tragi-comic, alternating between knowledgeable and naive. I enjoyed the story and empathized with the character. On the negative side, the factoids about war are introduced abruptly, for example as a mot-a-mot mental record of the young Achak (under seven years of age), made from the words of an SPLA officer.

What struck me as truly negative is how this story matches, point for point, the story of the earlier memoir They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan. The same perils. The same situations. The same nasty Anyuak villagers. The same life in the camp, with the same problems. The same historical events, down to the color of the river Gilo when escaping Panyido. The same strong impression from the visit of high officials, including the highest SPLA commander. The same, the same, the same. The new part is about life in the US, but that was for this reviewer the least interesting, regardless of the narrator's achievement.

Overall, I would recommend reading a real memoir on the topic, for example They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan. Reading this story for its literary achievement falls flat to my ears.

PS: A Google Maps link for the locations I could find on the map.
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Reading Progress

12/17/2011 page 231
49.0% "...in which Achak tries to find out what separates the others from his own kin..."
100.0% "done and done... much is a dramatic take on memoirs on the topic"

Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by Rafaela (new)

Rafaela So you don't recommend? I liked AHWOSG...

Michael Scott Rafaela wrote: "So you don't recommend? I liked AHWOSG..."
I'd recommend reading a real memoir. This one's more polished, also not adding much detail. I'm about to add my review :-)

message 3: by Rafaela (new)

Rafaela well, why would you expect a "real" memoir from a novelist? :)

Michael Scott I don't, when the novelist does not claim "fictionalized autobiography". The fictional part should have referred perhaps also to the pre-American life of Achak Deng, otherwise the book was not novel enough for my taste. Also, this topic is perhaps not my favorite for a "real" novel.

message 5: by Rafaela (new)

Rafaela ah, child, i see what you mean there

Paul Bryant Hi Michael - a very interesting review - would you use the p word here? Plagiarism?

Michael Scott Paul, in short, yes.

A bit longer: In my world, of academic research, better writing does pass as new ideas. The story and the events are the same as in They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan. For me, there are too few elements here to say that the ideas in What is the What are novel. The publication dates seem to indicate which manuscript was first completed. I've also read several interviews with Achak Deng and David Egger before reaching this conclusion. They seem evasive when answering the question of how much was this story about real events in the life of Achak. Did Egger "borrow" a few events from the other story? Did Achak really have this very similar list of horrors (experiences) to talk about? If they did, then maybe the topic was too narrow to cover twice. P.

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