What is the What by Dave Eggers

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According to the tradition of the Dinka, the people who live in southern Sudan, after God created the world and the first man (a Dinka), he gave the first man a choice.

“You can have either these cattle, as my gift to you, or you can have the What,” he said.

The Dinka chose the cattle, and according to the tradition, the Arabs, who lived in Northern Sudan, were given the What. (Story found on pages 62-63 of What is the What.) Valentino Achak Deng, a young boy growing up in southern Sudan, thought “What made the Arabs inferior? What could be better than cattle?” But when the north begins annihilating his hometown during Civil War, he, at age seven, finds himself wondering, what is the What?

What is the What (by Dave Eggers, written 2006), is the fictionalized version of Valentino’s story as he came to maturity during a Sudanese civil war. Narrated in first person, it tells of his survival amid incredible tribulation. Because he was away from the village when the military attacks on his village came, he was able to escape both capture and assassination. Thus, at age seven, he began walking, and soon found a group of other boys likewise walking through the southern Sudanese deserts and jungles. Together, they avoided hungry lions and suffered extreme starvation. Boys died daily through the thousand-mile walk. Their destination was a refugee camp in Ethiopia.

In some respects, Valentino’s life appears to be a series of disappointments. Being such a young child, he innocently expected a house, food, and comfort once they arrive in Ethiopia. Instead, Ethiopia appeared much like Southern Sudan, and the children struggled to avoid starvation, disease, and conscription into the Sudanese rebel army. When the refugees were then forced out of Ethiopia due to a regime change, he fled to Kenya, expecting to find a home with the other refugees. Instead, he spent ten years living in tents in yet another desert. Then, he expected to be accepted among the Americans in Atlanta and finally find some semblance of normality. Instead, he was robbed at gunpoint. True, as he progressed through life, his situation improved. His life in America, of course, is much better than his childhood walking across the desert. But What is the What seemed to be asking the reader to consider human nature: why are we so cruel to each other?  How do we overcome the struggles we must face?

If What is the What has a fault, it is that Valentino’s story is told as a series of flashbacks as he is being robbed in his house. I didn’t like how it frequently shifted from the present tense (2005) back to his childhood, yet it did have a purpose. The narrative technique allowed us to see that although Valentino has made it to America, he still is uncomfortable with the self-centered nature of people, the inexplicable things humans do to each other, and the difficulties that come in many societies. Yet, I wanted the story to follow a traditional pattern, and I disliked Valentino’s references to the people he was, in his mind, telling his story to. It felt awkward to me.

Nonetheless, Valentino’s story was a page-turner. I found I did not want to put it down.  How does one overcome the experience, at age seven, of watching loved ones cut in pieces? When a ten-year-old watches a woman, who claims to want to help, lift a rifle, and shoot his friend, how does he ever learn to trust? How does such a child survive such psychological challenges? I was fascinated by Valentino’s story, and while I wondered about the fictionalized versus true aspects of his life story, I found Dave Eggers’ novel to be a wonderful representation of human’s ability to overcome insurmountable obstacles.

As for the underlying question, I never did quite figure out what is the What. Young Valentino guessed that maybe the What was the AK-47 that the Sudanese were using against the rebels, but that idea was discounted. I think the What is meant to be something a bit more abstract, but I’m still a little bit at a loss.

What do you think the What is?

Reviewed on October 18, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I have only ever tried to read one book by David Eggers and that was his memoir which I found unbearably painful and pretentious. It was pure agony to read, and so ever since then I’ve shied away from his writing. This sounds really interesting, however, and I feel like maybe Eggers is more enjoyable when he’s not writing about himself? I sure hope so!

    • Steph, I really hope you read this. It’s nothing like AHWoSG at all. This is instead a story that is meant to be told. We should be aware of these things, so far removed from our own lives.

      Rebecca, I’m still confused about what the What is as well. Didn’t you find that conversation they had about it hilarious? Lol. I know this book may not be as literarily accomplished as others, but this is one of my most fave books of all time because it moved me and in a way changed my life.

      • claire, I really liked the conversations he had about the “what” very fun. Because it’s clear he doesn’t know either! It is a moving book. Thanks for the encouragement to read it!

    • Steph, that’s too bad about Eggers’ memoir. Like Claire says, this is a story of someone else that should be told in SOMEWAY so I’m glad Eggers took it up! Like I said, I wasn’t keen on the narrative style, but it certainly was a page-turner regardless!

  • I recently read Egger’s Zeitoun, which was the first of his books that I have read.

    This one sounds a bit too heavy for me for the time being, but nonetheless rather interesting. I also think it has recently been translated to Danish (not that reading it in English would necessarily present a problem).

    • Louise, although Valentino’s story is quite heavy, the book didn’t feel that way. Don’t get me wrong — it is an emotionally draining story. But it is so well done, I think it was okay. And I don’t do well with heavy themed books.

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