Friday, April 15, 2011

Finding the What

I have a confession to make.  What is the What by Dave Eggers sat in my nightstand unread for at least two years.  There's a good lame reason for this, and that is that I was sure that the shadowy man on the front cover was going to have his hand chopped off by a government or rebel soldier at some point in the story, and I didn't want to face that.  Guess what?  Valentino Achak Deng survives the story with both hands intact.

What is the What is a novel that calls itself an autobiography in the subtitle.  Confused?  You needn't be.  Valentino Achak Deng is a real person, who told his story to Dave Eggers over a period of years.  Eggers then wrote the story as a novel, so that he could incorporate conversations that couldn't possibly be quoted word for word, even though it is mostly factual.  It was very helpful for me that the story is told through flashbacks, so I knew from the very beginning that Achak lived through the tale.  Also Achak told the reader early on that although horrible things happened, they didn't happen directly to him.

Achak was what we have heard of as a "lost boy from Sudan".  His village was attacked, he was separated from his family, and he found himself walking, and at times running, with thousands of other boys, seeking safety.  Achak is a natural friend and leader, and he is able to achieve a degree of success, even in a refugee camp.  Through his relocations and the different stages in his life, Achak is known alternately as Achak, Valentino, and Dominic.  I (ridiculously) prefer to call him Achak, as that was the name that his family and his oldest friends used.  The title of the book, What is the What, is a question that puzzles Achak through out the story.  By the end, you know that Achak has not only figured out what The What is, but you are certain that he will possess it.

I listened to What is the What  on CD, which was perfect.  While it was more than 20 hours of story, I was left wanting more.  The voice of the reader, Dion Graham, was spot on.  Although I don't know if his accents were accurate, they sure sounded right to me.  I think that listening to it was also helpful because there were so many locations and names that I had never heard of before, which I may have stumbled over if I was reading.

There is something about Achak that radiates success.  I did some Googling after finishing the book, and was not surprised at all to find that he and Dave Eggers have created the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation.  The Foundation has recently opened a school in Marial Bai, Achak's village.  Even after making it out of Sudan and to America, Achak has found a way to help his village and make a difference for others.  I wish that I could know Achak personally, but for now I will have to be satisfied with the Facebook Friend Request that I sent. 

Next up on CD:  Run by Ann Patchett

Still Reading:  Occupied City  by David Peace

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