What Is the What

The Autobiography
of Valentino Achak Deng

By Dave Eggers

McSweeney's. 478 pp. $26

nolead ends nolead begins

Reviewed by Dan DeLuca

Inquirer Staff Writer

nolead ends 'Everyone disappears, no matter who loves them."

In the course of Dave Eggers' What Is the What, Valentino Achak Deng develops a habit of coining pithy philosophical adages in the face of one inconsolable loss after another.

But then, he's left with little choice. The main character in Eggers' epic tale lives within a "circumference of calamity" from which, it often seems, there is no escape.

A member of a Christian Dinka tribe forced as a child to flee his village in southern Sudan after it was attacked by soldiers of the Islamist government of Khartoum in 1987, Deng is one of that east African nation's thousands of Lost Boys, famous for their perilous thousand-mile, years-long trek across Ethiopia before landing in a Kenyan refugee camp.

Deng is a real person, and the book written in his voice by Eggers, the hyperactively talented memoirist author A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, calls itself both an autobiography and a novel.

So what exactly is What Is the What?

It's a novelization of Deng's saga - or, as its dignified protagonist describes it in a preface, "a soulful account of my life," that grew out of years of taped interviews with Eggers, and the author "approximating my voice, and using the basic events of my life as the foundation."

Both subject and author insist that the changes are "minor things," involving compressed time and combined characters, that were "necessary," according to Deng. Reading What Is the What doesn't make entirely clear why that is.

But if, even in an era of James Frey fabrication and Stephen Colbert truthiness, we allow ourselves to trust the author and its subject, there's no denying that Eggers' rendering of Deng's odyssey makes for a profoundly gripping read that recalls Art Spiegelman's Maus in its tale of one man's survival in the face of abominable cruelty and innumerable twists of fate.

The title refers to a Dinka proverb told by Deng's father early in the book, when Deng is a boy living in the village of Marial Bai.

It's about God, at the dawn of creation, giving men the choice of what gift they will receive - cattle, which will provide the milk and meat they can live on, or the mysterious, unknowable What.

The Dinka, wise and rational, choose the cattle. But for others, like the murahaleen, the militias who would soon attack Deng's village (much like those that now ravage the Sudanese region of Darfur), the temptation of the stronger What is too much to resist.

The chaos and danger of the What enters on the first page, when the story begins in Atlanta, where Deng emigrated in 2001. When we first meet him, he is learning the hard way that he didn't escape a world of violence when he left his homeland.

After making a fateful mistake in the book's opening line - "I have no reason to not answer the door so I answer the door" - he is robbed, beaten, and tied up with telephone cord in his apartment by an African American couple who refer to him as "Africa," and leave him held hostage by a child not much older than he was when he first witnessed his father being beaten by Sudanese soldiers.

The heartbreaking set piece that follows introduces us to the noble narrative voice of Deng - who was known as Achak as a boy, and later took Valentino as a baptismal name. After being struck in the head with the barrel of a gun, he tells his story, in his mind, to his latest tormentors.

"I have the fortune of seeing more suffering than I have suffered myself, but nevertheless, I have been starved, I have been beaten with sticks, with rods, with brooms and stones and spears. I have watched too many young boys die in the desert. . . . And yet at this moment, as I am strewn across the couch and my hand is wet with blood, I find myself missing all of Africa. I miss Sudan, I miss the howling grey desert of northwest Kenya. I miss the yellow nothing of Ethiopia."

What Is the What is not an unrelenting horror story. The book is capacious enough to include schoolboy sexual shenanigans (in a refugee camp in Kenya), grown-up if ill-fated romance, and the culture shock of attending an Atlanta Hawks game at the invitation of Sudanese 7-footer Manute Bol.

Deng is a deeply human character, never merely saintly, and Eggers tell his story with such elegance that the book comes across as a life-affirming work of art while putting a human face on a story of nearly incomprehensible suffering.

That face belongs to Valentino Achak Deng, who keenly recognizes that by telling his own story, he makes it impossible for the story of his people to be denied.

"I speak to these people, and I speak to you because I cannot help it," Eggers writes, addressing the reader in Deng's voice at the book's close. "I am alive and you are alive, and we must fill the world with words. . . . All the while I will know that you are there. How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist."

Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/dandeluca.