This review was published in the Fall 2007 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 388-392.]


Book Review 


What is the What

Dave Eggers

McSweeney’s, 2006 


            What is the What is a partly fictionalized account of the life of one of the four thousand “Lost Boys” who were brought over to the United States in 2001 after fifteen years’ wandering and encampment as refugees from the civil war in the southern Sudan.  Above all, readers come away with a vivid sense of the cruelties and indifference human beings inflict upon each other, and with an equally vivid sense of the tenacity of life that has so long kept Achak Nyibek Arou Deng, the book’s subject, going through all these years.

            Deng was born into a Dinka village in southern Sudan before the outbreak of the civil war there (the war that preceded the current war in the western Sudanese region of Darfur).  When his village was burned by Arab raiders, he joined the tens of thousands of refugees, many of them unaccompanied children, who trekked across the Sudan for asylum in Ethiopia.  He spent three years in the Pinyudo camp inside Ethiopia until the refugees there were driven out with mass bloodshed by the Ethiopians.  Horrors of many kinds—including those from humans, crocodiles and lions—accompanied Deng at each step of his odyssey.  Eventually, he lived for ten years in the Kakuma refugee camp inside Kenya.  It was from there that he and other “unaccompanied children,” mostly boys but with a few girls, were brought to the United States in 2001.

            To its credit, Eggers’ book is not a typical account designed to play upon the empathy and credulity of sympathetic souls who read it.  Eggers quite candidly describes that genre: “The tales of the Lost Boys have become remarkably similar over the years… Sponsors and newspaper reporters and the like expect the stories to have certain elements, and the Lost Boys have been consistent in their willingness to oblige.  Survivors tell the stories the sympathetic want, and that means making them as shocking as possible.”  He admits that his own telling “includes enough small embellishments [so] that I cannot criticize the accounts of others.”  Perhaps, as he says, he cannot criticize those others; but there is much honest candor in the book, as we will see.

            Some of this candor has to do with the quizzical irrationality of American altruism.  We know, of course, that throughout the history of the United States many Americans have been inspired by an altruism that is unrestrained by reason.  This is the giddy “do-goodism” that mixes so many fine qualities with a child-like naivete that is blind to causes and consequences.  About this, the book has Deng saying that “we were the model Africans… We were applauded for our industriousness and good manners and, best of all, our devotion to our faith.  The churches adored us, and the leaders they bankrolled and controlled coveted us.  But now the enthusiasm has dampened.  We have exhausted many of our hosts.  We are young men, and young men are prone to vice.  Among the four thousand are those who have entertained prostitutes, who have lost weeks and months to drugs, many more who have lost their fire to drink, dozens who have become inexpert gamblers, fighters.”  About his own host family, he says “the Newmyers’ generosity was, I believe, irrational, reckless even.  It was difficult to understand.”  The founder of the Lost Boys Foundation, which was set up to assist the Lost Boys living in Atlanta, was Mary Williams, a black American who was fathered by  a Black Panther and later adopted by actress Jane Fonda.  But she came to be “hurt by the attitudes of some of the Sudanese she served.”  Deng says “they yelled at her; they questioned her competence, often invoking her gender as explanation for her ineptitude….”  Donations evaporated, and she closed the Lost Boys Foundation in 2005.

            Such a denouement is bound to lead serious readers to ask a “politically incorrect” question that is certain to shock those who will forever remain unshaken in their giddiness, whatever realities the world presses upon them.  This is whether the importation of the 4,000 was or was not a good thing for America.  It surprises Deng that the importation, including his own, was continued within days after the events of September 11.  It appears that the open-door welcoming of large numbers from the Third World has proceeded without the slightest concern for national security.  In the context of egalitarian ideology, all of the Lost Boys were assumed to be suitable “college material.”  A great many have proved not to be, as might be expected from their lack of interest in the education offered at the Kakuma camp and from the fact that, as Deng tells us, “in southern Sudan, we are by any estimation at least a few hundred years behind the industrialized world.”   Even Deng himself, despite all that has driven him and the leadership qualities he has displayed, found his grades “inconsistent” in a two-year college and his teachers asking him whether he was in fact ready for college. He says (in 2006) that he’s made “little progress” since coming to the United States in 2001. Deng tells how many of those being imported lied to American interviewers when they denied having been soldiers in the rebel army; how Sudanese families have made a point of profiteering from the sale of brides to join the emigres who have come to the United States; and how rancor, suspicion and envy exists among the emigres, with a regression into the tribalism they knew at home.  Finally, he reminds us that with “chain immigration” the United States allows the emigres to marry girls in Sudan and bring them over.

            Deng has no desire personally to assimilate into the United States and “become an American.”  His intent is to return someday to his Dinka village.  He expresses little gratitude toward the United States for the enormous assistance it has given him and little appreciation for its advanced civilization.  These are subjects he almost never touches on, although there is one half-appreciative effusion when he says “This is a miserable place, of course, a miserable and glorious place that I love dearly….”  Most of the story is recounted as memories brought to mind during brutal or uncaring treatment he has received from Afro-Americans in the United States.  (He lay tied up for several hours during and after an “apartment invasion” in Atlanta, and early chapters are based on his thoughts as he lay there.)

            The book brings home to the reader the intractable complexities that exist in the world and that deny the possibility of any easy amelioration of existing conditions.  It’s a complex tapestry that the following tidbits only hint at: the northerners in Sudan believe they are Arabs and are superior to the blacks in the south, even though most of the northerners are just as black; at the same time, many Arabs outside Sudan don’t consider the northerners truly Arabs.  For their part, the Dinka tribe in southern Sudan has long felt itself “God’s chosen people” (so it isn’t just the northerners who think themselves superior).  We are told that even though the Dinka had to run from the Arab raiders, they also had to run from other Dinka. “Many tens of thousands” were killed as one southern tribe fought another.  The Ethiopians under the Communist dictator Mengistu allied themselves with the southern rebels (although local people at the site of the Pinyudo camp violently opposed the refugees); but when Mengistu was overthrown, the Ethiopians massacred the refugees as they fled, for no apparent military reason.  After the surviving refugees, supplemented by thousands more pouring in from the countryside, gathered at the Kakuma camp in Kenya and were provided extensive amenities by the international aid community (although oddly only enough food for one meal a day), the refugees felt the utmost paranoia toward the United Nations when it sought to count them to determine the quantity of provisions to supply: having heard about the Holocaust, they thought they were about to be exterminated.  The situation in Africa in general, not just in Sudan, is illustrated by the fact that it wasn’t just Sudanese who inhabited the Kakuma camp; it included “Rwandans, Ugandans, Somalis, even Egyptians.”

            Interestingly, Deng’s excruciating experiences and his five years in the United States have not combined to inculcate in him the ideology of “victimization” that is so common today.  The book reflects no sense of angst, just as it speaks little to gratitude.

            The title What is the What remains a mystery to this reviewer even after a careful reading of the book.  In a story told by Deng’s father, “the What” is a mysterious something offered to man by God, and as the book progresses there are intimations that it is a bad thing (that, when accepted by the Arabs, made them evil) or a good thing (that the father urges Deng to bring home with him from America after Deng has become successful).  It probably wouldn’t be appropriate to give away the secret in a review even if the reviewer were acute enough to figure it out.  As it is, it awaits solution by more astute readers.  (Readers will notice that there is no question mark in the title, for whatever significance that may have.)

            Before we conclude, it is worth commenting on the book’s claim to be both an “autobiography” by Deng and a “novel” written by Eggers.  It is unfortunate that the word “autobiography” has come to refer sometimes to a memoir written by someone other than the person whose life is being told.  (The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written by Alex Haley,  is an example.)  With a true autobiography, each word and phrase tells something about the mindscape or inner mental structure of the person himself.  That is missing in an account told by someone else.  And, of course, we count on its being strictly accurate (although reserving judgment about that).  When we are told that What is the What is a novel and that “many of the passages are fictional,” we are left to take the account as impressionistic, not as specifically accurate.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Dwight D. Murphey