Tuesday, March 20, 2007

What is the What

It's spring break and I've been reading David Eggers What is the What in great gulps. Eggers first novel did not, in my judgment, live up to its overly ambitious (and admittedly ironic) title A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but What is the What more than fits the bill. Eggers has collaborated with Sudanese refugee Valentina Achak Deng and created a novel which spells out in excruciating detail—it's a true story—the odyssey of a child whose life is turned to chaos went Arab raiders come to his village in Southern Sudan and destroy it, killing pretty much everyone but young children. Achak becomes one of a group of thousands of child refugees, who have come to be known as "The Lost Boys" who are driven into an exile on foot that lasts throughout much of his adolescence, and the book tells the more or less incredible story of how he finally arrives in the United States, and what happens after he gets here, which in some ways is scarcely an improvement. It's perhaps too easy to use a phrase like "a must read," but in all seriousness I can't think of a more necessary book I've encountered in my lifetime. It's a harrowing story, but it has moments of great beauty and lyricism as well, and I read it with steadily increasing respect both for Valentino Achak Deng and for Dave Eggers.

Leonard Lopate conducts a very interesting interview with Deng and Eggers here, and Deng has a website which gives information and the plight of the Sudanese refugees here.

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