Bookmarks Issue: 
Dave Eggers

The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng

A-What Is the WhatValentino Achak Deng survived a 1,000-mile exodus during the Sudanese civil war of the 1980s and 1990s. As a boy, he walked—along with thousands of orphans, many starving and ill—to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya after harrowing contacts with soldiers, militia groups, and wild animals. Half the children died along the way (over 20 years, 2.5 million people died overall), but shared suffering and visions of safety kept Deng and others alive. The refugee camps, however, fell far short of their dreams. Finally finding refuge in the United States, Valentino suffered more after his girlfriend was murdered, but he never relinquished hope.
McSweeny’s. 475 pages. $26. ISBN: 1932416641

People Weekly 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[A] second novel that is as much an absolute classic as it is difficult to classify. … Eggers proves himself a master of narrative, both for what he has written here and for his choice of subject, which is compelling, important and vital to the understanding of the politics and emotional consequences of oppression." Jonathan Durban

Time 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[A] moving, frightening, improbably beautiful book, a lightly fictionalized version of Deng’s life. … What Is the What has the same sick, surreal intensity as Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird." Lev Grossman

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"After two mannered books … in which cleverness and literary gimmickry seemed to get the upper hand, Mr. Eggers has produced What Is the What, a startling act of literary ventriloquism that recounts the harrowing story of a Sudanese refugee named Valentino Achak Deng, while reminding us just how eloquently the author can write about loss and mortality and sorrow." Michiko Kakutani

Atlanta Jrnl-Constitution 4 of 5 Stars
"Eggers makes some attempt to provide a historical framework, but this is more a personal account than a comprehensive overview. … Deng and Eggers do not try to make sense of it; there is no sense to be made." Phil Kloer

Entertainment Weekly 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Each step of his journey brings fresh trials, from crocodile attacks to starvation to a violent robbery in his Atlanta apartment, all of which Eggers describes with clarity and grace. … It reads—and should be savored—as a powerful, if occasionally didactic, piece of oral history." Jennifer Reese

Critical Summary

Dave Eggers is best known for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), and here he shows that he is as adroit at telling another person’s biography as he is narrating his own. Over three years, he conducted 100 hours of interviews with Deng and visited Sudan with him in "synergistic collaboration" (Time). Labeled as a novel, this work nonetheless has a historical basis and lends a personal face to the brutality of civil war, squalor, and the struggle for survival. A few critics questioned where Deng’s story ended and Eggers’s literary license began, and the book as a whole could have been better edited. While visceral and heartrending, Deng’s and Eggers’s joint story is ultimately a powerful tale of hope. When both People and the ever-glum Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times rave, how can one resist?