Originally published in the Irish Times. Posted here again now due to Valentino Achak’s Deng’s visit to Dublin.
One night in the summer of 2001, I stood in a field, in thick mud, holding a clipboard and a torch. The torch showed up a row of primitive huts, and I moved from hut to hut, shining my torch inside, sometimes finding wide-eyed faces, mostly of children. “Where are your parents?” I asked. “Fetching wood”, they answered, though it was 4am, and I made marks on a sheet on my clipboard. Many huts were empty. As I walked, adult shadows flitted past, and there were sounds of running and shouting. Torch beams perforated the night, as colleagues walked down other, parallel lines of huts.
When we finished, as dawn broke, the senior United Nations official for the area spoke to these people, refugees from one of Africa’s then longest-running conflicts. He called them cheats and liars. This was a humanitarian census operation, conducted in darkness to catch out families who were cheating the food-distribution system by pretending to be two families, with two huts. The census was a success. By the time we got back into our convoy of 4x4s and left for the town, and breakfast, the population of this camp had fallen by maybe 20 per cent.
In Dave Eggers’s extraordinary new novel, the story of a refugee from Sudan, we see such an operation from the other side. What the aid workers call fraud, the refugees call “recycling” – they “recycle” themselves. In a refugee camp, where there is no industry, employment or even agriculture, it is the one thing they can do to assert themselves over their environment. The bitter irony of international charity is that it wades into situations where populations have been brutalised and, in order to help, implements systems that are themselves dehumanising. There is much similar irony in What Is the What.
This may sound fitting: Dave Eggers is a master ironist. In his debut novel, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and through his journal, McSweeney’s, he has propagated a knowing, stylish worldview in which the audience is disarmed by self-effacement and self-satire. It is relentlessly clever. But What Is the What is different. The narrative voice here is earnest and naïve rather than ironic and clever; the irony is drawn from our observation of how that voice undercuts some of the shibboleths of the West’s relationship with Africa.
The term “novel”, and the authorship of Eggers, seems misleading: more straightforward to rely on the subtitle: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng. Deng is a Dinka refugee from Southern Sudan, now living in the United States. Early in his time there, he met Eggers, and the two struck up a friendship. It was fortuitous for both: Deng gave Eggers his story; Eggers gave Deng the possibility of having a voice.
The resulting book lies somewhere between ghost-written autobiography (perhaps what it might have been had there not been a literary star involved) and an epic, first-person, fictional narrative. In a preface, Deng calls it “the soulful account of my life”.
Deng fled his village in Southern Sudan when war came, some time in the late 1980s. He was perhaps eight years old (he does not know his age). He met up with others fleeing and, slowly, and through many horrors, this group became a column of a few hundred boys, which eventually found its way across the border to Ethiopia. All the boys had been separated from their parents, or orphaned, and they acquired the sobriquet of the “Lost Boys”. Their number would eventually swell to 4,000.
In Ethiopia, there was stability for a time; a refugee camp was built and international aid arrived. But they were driven out again when the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia was overthrown, in 1991, and fled back across the river frontier into Southern Sudan, under shelling and gunfire. Many were killed and then, later, the rains came, and the refugees, waiting again for international aid, succumbed to illnesses – “especially the boys who had no mothers: they broke under the force of the rain, they melted back into the earth”.
Deng’s companion, Achor Achor, said to him there, “We’re all part of the same dying, but you and I are just dying more slowly than the rest”. But both Deng and Achor Achor survived. They walked on, eventually making it to Kenya, where a vast camp arose. They lived there for ten years, and then, under a unique refugee resettlement programme, they were resettled in the US, along with most of the Lost Boys.
The events of Deng’s story seem overwhelmingly bleak. Even in the US, he is afflicted with ill luck and he and his loved ones are victim to violence. But the voice in which he tells it (the voice Eggers has ascribed to him) contains such humanity, and his insights are so shrewd, and sometimes so surprising, that the book is difficult to put down.
And it is often funny, especially in his many and varied accounts of adolescent courtship in the camps. Displacement has undermined the Dinka peoples’ old certainties, and there is a certain advantage in this for hormonal teenagers, as Deng’s adventures with four sisters, the “Royal Nieces of Pinyudo”, reveal.
This book is a novel, I keep reminding myself. It almost never feels like one. Eggers has found a true voice in which to tell an extraordinary tale. Only occasionally does it falter: in his didactic asides on the historical origins of the Sudanese conflict (good history, and necessary; but unwieldy prose) and in the somewhat awkward, bridging device he uses to bridge Deng’s past and his present.
Valentino was Deng’s baptismal name. Deng met the same priest years later, in one of the camps, and the priest told him he was named after St Valentine, who cured a girl of blindness.
“I think that you will have the power to make people see. I think you will remember what it was like to be here, you will see the lessons here”, the priest said.
The priest was right. In Dave Eggers, Valentino Achak Deng has found an able medium, and through him, Deng does indeed have the power to make people see. Much of what you will see is horrifying, but more of it is magnificent in its humanity, insight, and courage. The book is Deng’s validation of that priest’s faith.