Saturday, March 03, 2007

BOOK REVIEW: So ... What IS the What?

The book club I attend has been reading What is the What by Dave Eggers. We haven't discussed it yet but I'm looking forward to the meeting. Briefly stated, What is the What is an autobiographical novel about one of the Lost Boys of Sudan named Achak Deng. What most inspired me going into this read was the chance to learn about something to which I've only given peripheral attention. I'm guilty of tuning out when I hear news about warfare and genocide in Africa. I've become numb to reports of yet more tragedy (hardly a strong enough word) on this continent that has seen and continues to see so much human degradation. I've turned the other way to avoid the discomfort of dealing with another person's pain.

The last paragraph of the book speaks to people like me -- people who are able to go about their lives in fair comfort and view the troubles of the rest of the world from a distance.

Whatever I do, however I find a way to live, I will tell these stories. I have spoken to every person I have encountered these last difficult days, and every person who has entered this club during these awful morning hours, because to do anything else would be something less than human. I speak to these people, and I speak to you because I cannot help it. It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to know that you are there. I covet your eyes, your ears, the collapsible space between us. How blessed are we to have each other? I am alive and you are alive so we must fill the air with our words. I will fill today, tomorrow, every day until I am taken back to God. I will tell stories to people who will listen and to people who don't want to listen, to people who seek me out and to those who run. All the while I will know that you are there. How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist. (Emphasis is mine.)

I have no glorified view of myself running out and hurling body and soul into the cause of the Lost Boys after reading What is the What, but my view of other people has been altered. I will find it impossible to pretend that those who are different than me don't exist; to look the other way because someone makes me feel uncomfortable or I can not bear to see their pain. The very least I can do is look people in the eyes and thereby acknowledge they are there ... that we have crossed paths and that they have a story that is just as important as my own -- probably even more important.

Achak's story doesn't begin with suffering and loss. In fact, he is a typical 6 year old boy in the village of Marial Bai. Traditions and wisdom are passed from generation to generation by stories. One of these stories involves the beginning of time. Achak's father is asked to tell this story at a gathering. The story goes as follows:

--When God created the earth, he first made us, the monyjang. Yes, first he made the monyjang, the first man, and he made him the tallest and strongest of the people under the sky....
--Yes, God made the monyjang tall and strong, and he made their women beautiful, more beautiful than any of the creatures on the land....
--[A]nd when God was done, and the monyjang were standing on the earth waiting for instruction, God asked the man, "Now that you are here, on the most sacred and fertile land I have, I can give you one more thing. I can give you this creature, which is called the cow...."
--Yes ... God showed man the idea of the cattle, and the cattle were magnificent. They were in every way exactly what the monyjang would want. The man and woman thanked God for such a gift, because they knew that the cattle would bring them milk and meat and prosperity of every kind. But God was not finished....
--God said, "You can either have these cattle, as my gift to you, or you can have the What...."
--But... What is the What?
--Yes, yes. That was the question. So the first man lifted his head to God and asked what this was, this What. "What is the What?" the first man asked. And God said to the man, "I cannot tell you. Still, you have to choose. You have to choose between the cattle and the What." Well then. The man and the woman could see the cattle right there in front of them, and they knew that with cattle they would eat and live with great contentment. They could see the cattle were God's most perfect creation, and that the cattle carried something godlike within themselves. They knew that they would live in peace with the cattle, and that if they helped the cattle eat and drink, the cattle would give man their milk, would multiply every year and keep the monyjang happy and healthy. So the first man and woman knew they would be fools to pass up the cattle for this idea of the What. So the man chose cattle. And God has proven that this was the correct decision. God was testing the man. He was testing the man, to see if he could appreciate what he had been given, if he could take pleasure in the bounty before him, rather than trade it for the unknown. And because the first man was able to see this, God has allowed us to prosper. The Dinka live and grow as the cattle live and grow....
--Yes, but uncle Deng, may I ask something? ... You didn't tell us the answer: What is the What?
--We don't know. No one knows.

I contemplated this question throughout the entire reading of the book -- what exactly IS the What? The story above actually gave away the answer to this question. It was not done overtly, but if one remembers that the first man chose cattle over the What -- that he chose contentment with what he had been given -- then the What seems more obvious. The What is the opposite of living contentedly with what one has. The What is the striving to gain what one does NOT have -- the grasping for power and wealth ... sometimes at great expense to others.

Achak's people experienced the fury of the What firsthand and were forced to flee their villages. The hope of the fleeing Sudanese was to arrive in a land flowing with milk and honey -- a paradise of peace and contentment. But instead of paradise, Achak finds that his relocation -- first to Ethiopia, then to Kenya, and finally to the United States -- does not leave behind the What. The What is all around him and he cannot escape this most ugly part of humanity. Assuredly this ugliness is more obvious and terrible in some places than in others, but in the end no people group and no place is immune from the What.

Also reviewed by:
Lezlie at Books 'N Border Collies


  1. I just came home from seeing the movie Amazing Grace, which was of course, amazing and it had me thinking about so many things. One of those things was the situation in Africa, then and now, and I was thinking about stuff from this book. I'm not finished with it yet but it is already given me plenty to ponder. Anyway, I come home and I see this post. At first, I thought how strange, I was just thinking about this stuff and then I realized that it makes sense. The book stays with you, doesn't it?

  2. There's something so beautiful about the way Africans write about cattle.

  3. OH Geeze ... see ... i've been avoiding this book ... this topic ... but now ...

    And he does indeed lay out the very heart of storytelling ... why we must know and tell our stories.

  4. Oh, I totally need to read this book!

  5. One of my favourite books ever. Because after over a year it's still stuck on my mind.