What is the What
by Dave Eggers
5 stars - hypnotic
What is the What is the fictionalized account of the life of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan.
Let's get the whole fictionalized part out of the way right up front because it's a major focus of most of the reviews I've read. The preface indicates that this is Valentino's story as told to Mr. Eggers and that some conversations have been recreated and characters combined. Hence fiction. From there one is left to speculate how much fiction, how much fact, if one chooses to do so.
I found the book to be hypnotic, lyrical, exhausting, and difficult to put down. Events that cannot be fathomed pile up on top of each other. All presented in a style that does not seek to be overly dramatic or manipulative. There are heroes and villains, but throughout, the voice of the author is kept small, modest. "These things happened, this is how I felt, this is what I did."
Valentino survives the journey from Sudan to Kenya and ultimately settles in the refugee camp of Kakuma. Started in 1992, the camp survives to this day, now host to 138,000 men, women, and children. People housed in the most desolate place imaginable, totally dependent on aid for food, water, and all the other necessities of life. It's overwhelming.
In 2001, Valentino finally makes the journey to the United States and settles in Atlanta.
It's a challenging book, because there are no answers. The resettlement of the Lost Boys in America was a mixed success, and possibly not a kindness. To move from one world to another so different, with limited resources seems more like an experiment in happenstance. Of course the United States offers opportunity, but it is also fraught with bedevilment and pitfalls and a culture that is confounding to many who have spent their lives fighting to survive in war torn Africa.
If nothing else, though, I feel it is important to be aware of the world around us. The very small world that somehow contains an extraordinary variety of human experience, both good and bad.