Saturday, April 26, 2008

What is the What, by Dave Eggers

I'm really late reading this book. I meant to read it when it first came out, but partly because I had been disappointed by Eggers's book You Shall Know Our Velocity!, I hesitated to invest in What is the What. I have a great deal of admiration for Dave Eggers, however. His first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, really was. So when I saw this book on sale on the used book table for fifty cents, I grabbed it and I'm glad I did.

What is the What is the story of one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, Valentino Achak Deng. He's not a hero or a superstar, but he is a survivor and that makes him a riveting subject of this book. Eggers writes the story but it is Deng's life. The honesty comes through and the raw nature of the input, but Eggers adds literary value, the flow of the story and a graceful vocabulary. The Scotland Sunday Herald calls it "a stunning act of symbiotic literary ventriloquism."

The life in question should make any citizen of the industrialized west grateful for our blessings. Violence, deprivation, and displacement add up to a kind of poverty that is hard for us to imagine. Here's an example: After walking all the way across Sudan, a group of boys nears the refugee camp in Ethiopia. At the last village before they cross the river to Ethiopia, some of them, thinking they will be provided for in the refugee camp, trade their clothes for food. As a result, there are boys who remain naked for six months, until a shipment of clothing makes it to the camp. That's a level of poverty I rarely contemplate.

Deng eventually makes it to America but it isn't paradise and he needs all his resourcefulness and persistence to survive here as well.

Here's the story of the title:
"My father stood and began, telling the story the way he always told it.
"--When God created the earth, he first made us, the monyjang. Yes, first he made the monyjang, the first man, and he made him the tallest and strongest of the people under the sky...
"Yes, God made the monyjang tall and strong, and he made their women beautiful, more beautiful than any of the creatures on the land...
"...and whan God was done, and the monyjang were standing on the earth waiting for insturction, God asked the man, 'Now that you are here, on the most sacred and fertile land I have, I can give you one more thing. I can give you this creature, which is called the cow...'
"...God showed man the idea of the cattle, and the cattle were magnificent. They were in every way exactly what the monyjang would want. the man and woman thanked God for such a gift, because they knew that the cattle would bring them milk and meat and prosperity of every king. But God was not finished.
"...God said, 'You can either have these cattle, as my gift to you, or you can have the What.'
"But...Sadiq said, helping out, --What is the What? he said, with an air of theatrical inquisitiveness.
"...Yes, yes. That was the question. So the first man lifted his head to God and asked what this was, this What. 'What is the What?' the first man asked. And God said to the man, 'I cannot tell you. Still, you have to choose. You have to choose between the cattle and the What.' Well then. the man and the woman could see the cattle right there in front of them, and they knew that with cattle they would eat and live with great contentment. They could see the cattle were God's most perfect creation, and that the cattle carried something godlike within themselves. They knew that they would live in peace with the cattle, and that if they helped the cattle eat and drink, the cattle would give man their milk, would multiply every year and keep the monyjang happy and healthy. So the first man and woman knew they would be fools to pass up the cattle for this idea of the What. So the man chose cattle. And God has proven that this was the correct decision. God was testing the man. He was testing the man, to see if he could appreciate what he had been given, if he could take pleasure in the bounty before him, rather than trade it for the unknown. And because the first man was able to see this, God has allowed us to prosper. The Dinka live and grow as the cattle live and grow.
"The grinning man tilted his head.
"--Yes, but uncle Deng, may I ask something?
"My father, noting the man's good manners, sat down and nodded.
"--You didn't tell us the answer: What is the What?
"My father shrugged. --We don't know. No one knows."
Read more about the real-life Valentino and his projects to promote education in Africa at his website.