What is the What
- Mark Robertson
- 4 June 2007
What is the What (Hamish Hamilton)
(Picture: © Meiko photography)
The world is a hard, cruel, unfair place and nowhere is that more starkly contrasted than when comparing the third and first worlds. Valentino Achak Deng is a Sudanese refugee who escaped the starvation, murder and civil war in his homeland to make it to Atlanta. There he found the civilised first world was arguably just as perilous as the third, with similar struggles in different contexts.
While the ever prolific Dave Eggers’ list of titles and side-projects grows, he is still best known for his fictionalised memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and this book is arguably the first work he has done to compare. What is the What also comes under the fictionalised memoir umbrella, with Valentino’s story told orally to Eggers who built a novel from it. The story itself traverses the Atlantic from Valentino’s new home, where he is attacked and robbed, to his journey across the deserts of Sudan where he walks, as part of a convoy of hundreds of boys to get to Ethiopia, and what he hopes will be safety.
If this sounds more than a little harrowing, well it is. Eggers has constructed a dense, intense but moving fable filled with vivid, flawed characters. There is an unerring spirit about Valentino and his story is one that is often so strange it must be true. We can learn much from a book like this but we are never browbeaten, and that is one of its most brilliant qualities.