Thursday, February 3, 2011

What is the What – Dave Eggers

2006, 475 pages
Valentino Achak Deng was born in a village in south Sudan. When he was a young boy, his village was attacked and destroyed by the northern Arab militia as part of the second Sudanese civil war. Achak had to flee to the forest to save his life. He joins a group of boys, all fleeing for their lives, evading wild animals and soldiers from both sides, reaches a refugee camp in Ethiopia, later moves (or actually flees again for his life) to Kenya, to another refugee camp, Kakuma, where he spends many years, and eventually arrives the US.
Achak, a real person, told his story to the author Dave Eggers, and he wrote this book, where Achak is telling his story. The book starts at present time, when Achak is in his Atlanta apartment, innocently opening the door to a strange woman who asks to use his phone. In the following eventful days, Achak will tell his story to the people he meets, but not in speaking the words. In his head. This is the story he would like to tell them, but he doesn’t, he cannot. He goes back to his childhood in Africa, and to his first days in the US, and so the plot advances in three different times in parallel – his present in the US, his history in the US, and his history as a child in Africa. It is a little confusing at first, especially since he begins by jumping to arbitrary events in his past, but after a certain point he starts to tell his story in order and things start to make sense. From this point on I could not leave the book. It was so fascinating and touching.
Today Sudan is back in the news, with their poll about independence. It is fascinating to go back to the time described in the book and get an inside look at the bloodied events. I was also fascinated by the personal story of Achak. He had to go through so many terrible events as a young child. To see so much evil, the darkest side of human kind that kill and torture or just look at the other side when these things happen. On the other hand, he met amazing people, generous people, people who risked themselves to help the lost kids who had no one else fending for them. I admired the person that came out of him. It wouldn’t be surprising if after all he’s seen as a child he would turn a resentful violent man that only want to grab a gun and revenge all that was done to him and taken away from him. Lots of the other young boys turned out that way, and were killed as young soldiers. But he was different. He avoided joining the rebel army. He knew, with the help of some amazing teachers in the camp, that education is what he needs and what will help him overcome his situation. He had lots of patience, and he needed it, with the many years it took him to leave the camp and arrive to the US. And life in the US weren’t the end of his troubles and misery. He tells, again, about amazing generosity, exceptional people who helped the Sudanese refugees. But also about hardship, racialism, prejudices and kind of problems that sometimes made him and the other Sudanese miss the refugee camp. It seems like the troubles are chasing him, and any kind of hardship and problem finds its way to his life. But he goes on, in a very inspiring way.
The profits from the book are donated to “The Valentino Achak Deng Foundation”, and are used to help other Sudanese, both in Sudan and in the US, the education that helped Achak to get where he is today.

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