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After the Fire: Eggers What is the What
Eggers, Dave. What is the What. McSweeney's, 2006
Dave Eggers unabashedly sources his fiction in the lives and experiences of real people. Recently, one of the sources for his fiction is in the news for crimes unrelated to the heroism he displayed under different circumstances that formed the basis for Eggers' Zeitoun . In What is the What , the subject of the book is Valentino Achak Deng, a refugee from the Sudan, living in America, pursuing his ambitions, frustrated and soul-stricken, yet still hopeful and striving.
This could have easily been an awful book. Many books written with good intentions are, wallowing alternately in the horrors of atrocity and in the purity of the sufferer. They remove the human reality of their subject, making of the sufferer an otherworldly, suprahuman figure in a modern morality play, informing us of what we already know--that war is terrible, genocide is evil, and behind the headlines and media commentary lie corpses. The reality and dignity of the sufferer's human existence and substance is sacrificed to the writer's good intentions. What is the What could have easily fallen into this trap, but it does not. Valentino Achak Deng as a literary figure--for not knowing the man I cannot speak to his character outside of the bounds of the book--is a success, a whole human being speaking to us with dignity and the full range of human fears, motives, and emotions.
Given the fact that this book is based on the experiences and character of an actual human being, and a human being who is not a celebrity or a politician, but in all his outer life and activities a common refugee, what are the author's duties to the subject? And how do these duties affect the writing of the novel? What cautions should a reader take in reading it? I think Eggers primary duty as a novelist is to create a plausible account, to present a whole human being in a whole world. The fictional Deng must be as real, as rounded in presentation, as the real man. He must not become merely a vehicle for the exploration of horror. A man is not a steamer, and this is not Joseph Conrad's Congo. On this count, Eggers is successful.
As a human being facing another human being, making use of his name and his story, Eggers owes his subject respect. He must ensure that the dignity and humanity of Deng are not subjects for dispute. The fact of that dignity, that humanity, are the core of the novel and of Deng's story. If Eggers should fail them, the novel will fail with it. This does not mean that he must make a hero of his subject. It demands, on the contrary, that the range of Deng's humanity is not confined to a single component of his life, a single uncomplicated fact of his existence and experiences. Heroes are simple: they confront and they overcome, and then they are done. Men and women living on this earth do not. They experience, they overcome at times, at other times they fail. They may rise to one occasion, and on another fall. They are not creatures of one moment, whether that moment is sublime, ridiculous, or horrific, but of many moments threaded together, often belatedly, into a comprehensible whole. On this count, again, Eggers is successful.
The cautions the reader should take with them lies in the nature of fiction, but because Deng is a living man, and because he is a human whom Eggers has helped speak clearly and effectively, the nature of fiction is undermined from the beginning and it is beneficial to the reader to remind himself that he is not reading, in the end, Achak's story from Achak's lips or pen, but a mediated form of that story. If this was a biography or a memoir, the reader would assume that every event detailed not presented as a dream or a lie happened and is remembered by the subject as described, that the other, incidental characters that appear were real men and women who behaved as described, lived and died and had contact with the subject. This is not so in a novel, even one based on a living man and a real life lived. Here, the refining nature of art interrupts and focuses the story to its essentials, eliminating the detritus of existence to reveal the core, the important, the true. Narrative creates meaning out of chaos, and what it cannot use, what fails it, is discarded. In other words, What is the What , because the law of narrative is to communicate, arranges and edits the disorder of actual existence to achieve the reality of story. This is why I insist that I know the character Valentino Achak Deng, but I do not know the man. The two are separate entities, one existing only in a book, and the other existing as a living man, still in the midst of his life, able to grow, change, develop as the Deng in the book cannot. Deng the man has a future beyond the book.
In the course of this review, all references are to Valentino Achak Deng as the novel presents him, as a character in a book, although this character has a real and vital connection to the man outside of it. There is a single exception at the end when Deng the man's present work in South Sudan is mentioned.
Valentino Achak Deng is a refugee, and he has been a refugee for most of his life, since he was driven from his village in the Sudan by the mujahaleen. There, in the terms of that village, he was the favored son of a relatively prosperous shopkeeper who maintained relationships with the Muslims who made use of the market, with whom the villagers, primarily of the Dinka tribe, co-existed, though they and the Muslims had separate histories, separate narratives of the nature of their relationship and their reality. The title of the book, What is the What , is taken from a Dinka story of creation that the father tells young Achak in the days of peace, one that is given a public, polite meaning when told before Muslim visitors, and a different, private meaning when told among the Dinka alone. The Dinka were, according to the story, given a choice: they could accept what the Creator had given them, or trade that for the What, an undefined something else, something different, something unknown. The Dinka accepted what they had been given, and so the What was given to others, remained unknown and undefined, became a substance that without need of further explication marked the boundaries of Dinka existence--the What lay where the Dinka were not. With the destruction of the village, of the settled patterns and forms of Dinka existence in the southern Sudan, the child Achak is thrown into an unwilling quest for the What, into experiences for which he lacks a previous pattern that might help him to understand and master them.
Today, those who pay attention to the situation in the Sudan at all are concerned with the continuing horrors of Darfur and the prospects for survival of the new nation of South Sudan. These concerns are not those of Achak in the novel, however, for the nation of South Sudan does not exist, and the horror of Darfur is a late innovation in the struggle over control of oil resources and the future of the Sudan as a Muslim, multi-ethnic, or divided nation. Achak is not a refugee from Darfur, but one of the Lost Boys of the Sudanese civil war from its earlier years. It is not, after all, the fact of horror that draws Western attention, but the power of the narrative of that horror, the effectiveness of the frame provided to its telling, and its place within competing narratives of similar horrors. The attention of the West can be, and often is, displaced, drawn to newer tragedies which appear, for the moment, to be more tractable, more open to solution, less fraught with difficulty and ambiguous results. Tragedy is a narrative; horror is not, and before horror we are frozen, helpless, and feel our full frailty as human beings and as communities.
Achak is a Lost Boy. Some Lost Boys were made soldiers, some were enslaved, many died. Those that did not die survived by chance, by mistake, forced by circumstances to assume a maturity they were not prepared for and which, in many cases, they could not shoulder. There are many, many ways to die, and the lives of the Lost Boys were unimportant. They were of use as soldiers and as the face of tragedy for the Western world by the SPLA. They were of use as seeds for a future Sudan in the minds of those devoted to re-creating in the South Sudan a lost, modernized Eden when, one day, the refugees returned. They were of use, but they were not, except in the eyes of a few, isolated individuals in a sea of plans, projects, and ambitions, of value in and of themselves, as human beings, and they remained silent and unheard, spoken for and spoken about, but not heeded and not speaking themselves. Achak begins to speak in this novel in yet another situation in which he is not heard: to an African-American man and woman who have come to rob him, and then to the child they leave to watch over him while they complete their robbery. Once he begins speaking, once he begins his tale, he is compelled to finish it. He has broken his silence, the rules he had applied to his own voice, and cannot stop until he is done, like the Ancient Mariner, only there is no wedding-guest that must listen, only readers who can choose to close the book and not take it up again. His communication within the text is negated by the possible listeners who will not stop to listen, and who do not want to hear, and as a text his communication faces the peril of negation by the reader who chooses to silence him.
It is a strange irony that we apply Lost Boys to the generation of child soldiers in Africa that entered our consciousness through events in Liberia, the Sudan, and central Africa. We have taken a term from children's literature, from Walt Disney cinema, and applied it to a situation that negates everything we treasure about childhood. The Lost Boys of Peter Pan do not want to grow up; they have fled the adult world for a fantasy of perpetual adventure under a willfully immature chief-child. The Lost Boys of the Sudan did not choose a life of adventure, but were cast into it, dragged into it, given no other choice. And they are not led by children, by and large, but by adults who find them useful in deadly games and contests that they, as children, cannot comprehend. They are the Lost Boys of dystopia, of chaos and destruction.
Why then does it appeal to us to call them Lost Boys? What escapes us under this label? Lost Boys do not grow up. What escapes us in this label is the very real problem of the continued existence of child soldiers, of the children of civil conflict and war, beyond the terms of the conflict and beyond the years of their own childhood. As Lost Boys they are trapped in a single moment, however horrific and unjust that moment might be, and denied further experiences, further opportunities for hope and for horror. For the fact of one experienced trauma does not save one from further tragedy, although we think justice would demand that one is enough for a lifetime, and the frustrations and fears of everyday failure, love, loss, and mediocrity are not eliminated by past experience. The fragility of existence can be taught, and one may learn that it makes every moment, every possession, every relationship immeasurably precious, or alternatively that it makes a joke of every moment, every possession, every relationship and that, therefore, such things are without any value at all. The fragility remains, however, as a burden that adds its weight to the pressures of survival rooted in the mundane.
Achak is not a Lost Boy anymore, but a young man with the weight of a lost world upon him, the world of the village he lost and the traditions that did not serve to save that village or the Dinka. He and the other Sudanese refugees have been cast out, and as castaways they must discover new forms of community, of survival, of being that are not new forms of destruction. They must discover the What which for too long remained in the world outside, so that they were surprised by the power of their enemies and blind to the negative impact of their own traditions and customs. The situation that created the Lost Boys was not simple, nor was the reality of the refugee camps and the path their journeys took in Africa and beyond it. The path of their survival, individually and as a community, will not be simple either.
In his voiceless narrative, the unspoken monologue of his present and past experiences, interrupted by actual words spoken to the people around him, Deng deals with a complex past and a complex present. His connection to the traditional past, to customs that seemed certain and proper in the village, has been changed by the loss of the village, by the trauma of the war and his life as a refugee in Africa and in the United States. As one example, consider the new perspectives life away from the certainties of the village bring to his view of male-female relationships and possibilities. The old ways are not the only ways, nor are they necessarily the good ways, despite their age and their roots in the tribal ways of a traumatized people. The conviction that the future of the Dinka people does not lie in a replication and recreation of the past is strong throughout the book, and a change in the status of women is part of this conviction.
Those who survive a similar predicament share a bond, the bond of being among the survivors, but does this suffice in new conditions, new circumstances, once survival of the shared crisis is assured? Chance plays into survival--the fact that another boy, not Achak, was eaten by a crocodile--so does external support--friends, aid workers, people of the same village who are invested in the survival of the remnants of the lost community. But also key to survival is the individual man, or woman, or child, their personal capacity to overcome, to maintain hope or to function within despair, to remain in motion and, sometimes, to remain still, to seize opportunities and to take chances. This interaction between the individual nature and the changing circumstances, all liable to be thrown into disarray by chance or intervention at any moment, is delicate and mysterious. Too many factors come into play within each event survived, and that which served before might in a new situation fail. There is a level at which survival, like death, is individual, a creator of unwanted isolation.
Individual's survive, then, not as a mass of Lost Boys but as very particular children, very particular men and women, and their survival, the risks of their fortunes and their lives, do not end in escaping one set of dangerous circumstances. There is life for the survivors, and the very existence of that life, of possibilities, opportunities, failures and successes, new connections and new experiences, changes them again and again. Transformation is a process from which only death removes us. Initially, the fact of survival alone might trump all other considerations in the creation of a bond, a community of those who have lived, but over time this community, this bond, becomes frayed and fractured by the impact of continuing experience. As individuals, in addition to the bond that forms communities, the individual refugee survives, navigates a new world, succeeds or fails, becomes an object of envy or of pity within the fragile community of men and women similar to him/her, but not the same.
Survivor's guilt has become a recognized, widely discussed effect of surviving atrocity, primarily through the testimony of Holocaust survivors. What lies at its core? The need for meaning, the conviction that there must be a teleology to surviving what destroyed a world. There is no teleology to survival. The meaning of survival does not lie hidden in the fact that one survived, but in what the individual makes of life after survival, how they bear the burden of what they have witnessed and what they create in its aftermath. The fact of witness cannot be evaded; there is no virtue in having seen horror, there is merely the weight of it carried further into a life of new experiences, trials, and victories. It is possible to suffer, and to learn nothing from it or to learn only evil. That a man suffered in and of itself does not bring him grace. The virtue of survival, the purpose and the meaning of suffering, must be endlessly renewed and recreated in action and in word in accordance with an individual's capacities and convictions. The life that was ruptured must be made whole again, somehow, and life, relentless and without pause, may refuse to participate in this process, may pause it or present obstacles to it difficult to surmount. By the end of What of the What the reader is convinced that Achak is, while not victorious, committed to creating meaning in his life, for himself and for his community, scattered and troubled as it is. He is creating the meaning of his survival as he lives, as he acts and struggles as a man conscious of the past, involved in the present, and hopeful for the future.
Today, Valentino Achak Deng is part of the new nation of the South Sudan. He has constructed a secondary school there, at his hometown of Marial Bai, the first in the region. It is in supporting ventures such as this that attempt to establish infrastructures, education, and communities in the aftermath of civil destruction that the West may be do something of value in Africa, beyond emergency aid when things are at their worst. Without investment in infrastructure, without working communities and the ability to act as their own agents and participate fully in their own civic and cultural existence, the future of the South Sudan will remain bleak. It is endangered already by the continuing wrangling over oil between North and South, as the economic motives of the original traumatic events of the 1980s become more and more clear in the continuing efforts of the North to deny oil, and through it economic survivability, to the South. I cannot swear that Achak Deng's organization is the right one to support, that it is free from corruption and will attempt to do what it claims. I can say, with some conviction, that if all we offer troubled nations and traumatized peoples is our momentary attention with no effort to support long-term, sustainable necessities for community, social, and individual survival, our emergency efforts are ultimately doomed salves for our conscience, the permission we give ourselves for looking away with the assurance that we have done enough.