‘What Is The What’ by Dave Eggers

You are a very young boy with loads of friends. You live peacefully with your family, where everything is perfect. But suddenly everything changes and a civil war starts. They try to kill your family. Being a little boy, you leave everything behind without knowing how dangerous the world can be. But from that moment you become a refugee, who tries to leave the country. Together with peers, you are making the longest journey in your life. With one thing in mind: I need to survive!

That little boy is Valtentino Achak Deng , a refugee from Sudan and the main character of the book “What is the what”, which is a novel based on a true story written by Dave Eggers.

This book is the biography of Valentino from his life in Sudan until his life in the U.S.. Valentino was a little boy living in Marial Bai. When the civil war started, he had to leave his birthplace ( Marial Bai ), at the age of seven. Together with the Lost Boys, he went to many refugee camps in Kenya and in Ethiopia. Many of his friend and countrymen didn’t make it. But he survived there for about 13 years. Afterwards he went to Atlanta ( U.S ), where he started a new life in a different world.

The Sudanese civil war was a conflict between the government of Sudan ( Northern Sudan ) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army  ( Southern Sudan). The Arabs from the North who worked together with the government, tried to kill the Dinka’s from the South.Valentino was a little Dinka boy, who escaped. Like Valentino almost four million people have been displaced during the war. And almost two million people died of war and war-related causes. Now it looks like only Dinkas were victims. But I have an Arab schoolmate from Sudan, whose parents took refuge in the Netherlands, because of the civil war. So the war caused many victims from both sides.

Valentino Achak Deng and Dave Eggers

Valentino Achak Deng and Dave Eggers

It took Dave Eggers many years to gather enough information to write this book. He interviewed Valentino many times, and they became really good friends. They also went to Sudan together where they visited Valentino’s hometown. Valentino told everything he could tell. And this book is the result.

Dave Eggers described the life of Valentino in a different way by using two story lines. The first story line starts in the present ( U.S.), when Valentino opens his door and afterwards something bad happens. The second story line starts in the past ( in Marial Bai ), from where Eggers describes Valentino’s journey until he reaches the U.S.. The second story line is displayed by using flashbacks. At first the two story lines together are fairly confusing.

Eggers describes how other people in this world live in very bad circumstances. These people have the time in their life, when they see a bicycle. While we are not satisfied if our parents don’t buy us a smartphone.

“…We simply want to sit and stare at the thing, outside Jok’s hut as the sun sets. And so we sit beside the bike, with the sun to our backs, to better see the bike as it stands on its kickstand next Jok’s house. We guard the bike from the majority of the afternoon, and though Jok and his wife are inside, we barely move pound, holding a stick on one shoulder to imply some kind of weapon, but finally we decide that it is just as well that we all sit under the bike and stare at it ”  page 39

This does make you think about how good our life is compared to theirs. Which makes this book overall a heartbreaking and gripping book which must be read.


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