What Is the What
“God has a problem with me,” the main character tells us in What Is the What, the latest novel from Dave Eggers. This phrase would be an annoying plea for self-pity from most characters, but from this Job-like man, it sounds like an understatement. The book is a fictionalized account of real-life survivor Valentino Achak Deng, a refugee from the Sudanese civil war of the 1980s and 90s. Valentino survived the destruction of his village and murders of friends and family by Arab militia and joins thousands of other "Lost Boys," (and some lost girls, too) who are beset by starvation, thirst and man-eating lions on their march to bleak refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. Once there, Valentino tries to piece together a new life. Before age 12 he has seen the very worst of humanity: its selfishness, greed, corruption and violence, but Valentino remains optimistic for his future. But finally his disappointment with his new life in America may be his breaking point. He finds his quest for safety, community and fulfillment in many ways even more difficult there than in the camps.
Before the war destroyed his peaceful childhood, Achak Deng remembers sitting at his father's feet at the community fire in their village of Marial Bai, listening to his father's rendition of their creation myth. God has created a proud Dinka man and a beautiful woman, and now he offers them cattle to provide them with milk and meat and wealth. "You can either have these cattle, as my gift to you, or you can have the What," God tells the first man in the story. "What is the What?" the man asks. "I cannot tell you," God replies. "Still, you have to choose ...between the cattle and the What." The man and woman wisely choose the cattle over the unknown and mysterious option, thereby passing God's test to appreciate what they had been given. At least, the interpretation has always been that the first Dinka man and woman chose wisely—until the war came and tore their lives apart.
After going through unimaginable hardships, Valentino begins to wonder after all if his ancestors made the right choice. He obsesses over what the “What” may be, though never seems to find an answer that satisfies him. In Valentino’s mind, the “What” may hold an answer for the terrible things that have happened to him. Though he never blames God and tries keep his tenuous grasp on faith, he believes that the simple story his father told to him so long ago might hold the key to understanding theodicy.
Biblical references and suggestions in the novel abound—Achak’s friend Moses (who later wants to travel from Seattle to Tucson on foot to draw attention to the Sudanese cause), the mysteriously life-affirming Maria, the Christ figure of the Quiet Baby, and the John in the Wilderness figure of the farmer who lives “nowhere” but saves Achak's life, not to mention Achak himself, who is clearly a modern-day Job.
Eggers manages to write the novel in Valentino’s compellingly simple, clear and humble voice—no trace remains of the author’s oversized, ironic personality. This makes the story utterly convincing. The author wisely eschews sentimentality, never manipulating the reader into feeling pity for Achak. In many places told from the point of view of a child, the book becomes a story of all those touched by the genocide in Sudan, a story of refugees who come to America to start over and a story of how people heal—and the ways in which they will never heal—after living through trauma. The result is a horrific account of the Sudanese tragedy, but also an emblematic saga of modernity—the search for home and self in a world of unending upheaval.
We are left feeling that this story is told as a plea that we fortunate ones will not forget what has happened—and is still happening—half a world away. Valentino closes the book, "How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist."