Friday, 14 May 2010

what is the what [w. dave eggers]

What is the What is a long, dry piece of writing. It is a book written by Eggers but described as the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese 'lost boy' who now lives in Atlanta. The book is therefore narrated in the first person, and there are no embellishments in the telling: it is a prosaic account of a remarkable and tragic life. However, this is not to say that there are not literary choices being made by the author, which we'll get back to in a bit.

Achak Deng's lifestory is a tragic one. Displaced from his home and separated from his parents at a young age, the book describes in detail his terrible march to ultimate safety in Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya. Along the way he faces hunger, the Janjaweed, the Sudanese army itself, mines, predatory animals. It's the sort of life that seems beyond belief to anyone raised in the comfort of the West, and Eggers' straightforward prose narrates the drama with page-turning efficiency. Achak, a sympathetic character, finds that tragedy continues to dog his life, as death continues to stalk him even after he should be safe. His very flight out of Kenya to a new life in the USA is postponed by the fact he was due to fly on the 11th September 2001.

The narration is framed by the events that occur on a given day in Atlanta when Achak is subjected to a violent robbery, and discovers that there's precious little attention or respect paid to his sufferings. This feels like an effective literary framing device, counterpointing the terrible events of his childhood and adolescence with this other more mundane act of violence. As though Achak is some kind of cursed everyman, fated to suffer the worst life has to offer wherever he finds himself. However, the book doesn't really explore this idea in any detail, and in the end both stories slightly tail off, with the final section lacking any real shape.

At which point its hard not to wonder if Eggers might not have made more of Achak's story had he been bolder and attempted to do something more creative with the narrative. Or perhaps this is a very self-conscious literary exercise exploring the borders of journalism and literature? One suspects that Eggers' rationale for writing it as it is might be that Achak's story is too dramatic to require any kind of literary manipulation, and to do so might be to belittle or traduce the reality. However, even the most prosaic of accounts involves a certain amount of literary dexterity, and in the end Eggers' wilful simplicity runs the risk of seeming as condescending as the visitors to the gym where Achak works. What we end up with is a clinical account of the surface facts, but no real sense of the poetic or philosophic context of those facts.

To put this in context: there was one moment, when Achak meets a crazy man who owns a bicycle, who lives on the edge of a minefield in what would appear to be the middle of nowhere. The man takes Achak in and he considers living with him. This brief passage reminded me of the work of Mia Couto, and his curious fables of war and societal disintegration in Mozambique. In this moment there was a hint of the way in which Achak's story is more than a succession of heartbreaking moments; that it fitted into some kind of pattern which only literature might reveal. But then the moment passed, and the book trundled on into his future, flitting from tragedy to tragedy.

No comments: