A curious new novel by Dave Eggers.

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 5 2006 12:29 PM

True Grit

Dave Eggers' new novel about the Lost Boys of Sudan.

What Is the What by Dave Eggers.

When, earlier this month, the new International Criminal Court in The Hague charged its first defendant, a former Congolese warlord called Thomas Lubanga, with abducting children and turning them into killers, an important point was made. It will no longer be acceptable, the court was warning, to involve children in wars, either as deliberate targets or as recruits for the guerrilla militias and government forces waging civil war across parts of Africa and Asia.

Among these children, in the 1980s and 1990s, were the Lost Boys of Sudan. And after 3,800 of these "lost boys"—the phrase taken from Peter Pan's orphans and widely disliked today by most African refugees—started arriving in the United States in 2000, plucked out of refugee camps in Ethiopia, they brought with them stories of what, precisely, it had been like to be a child caught up in an African civil war. (Very few of those to arrive were girls, for it was the boys, tending cattle in the fields, who were able to escape when militias torched their villages.) In these memoirs, written most often with the help of journalists and mentors, these boys, by now young men, told of hunger and fear, of walking for weeks or months across hostile land, being preyed on by crocodiles, drinking their own urine, or being hauled away to be trained as boy soldiers. The stories bear repeated telling: They are what the savagery of modern civil war is all about.

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Some of these memoirs have gone further. They have sketched in what it was like to arrive, as guests of U.S. generosity, in Chicago, Dallas, or San Francisco and never to have encountered before a fridge, a cube of ice, an elevator, a television set, a traffic light, or a hamburger. Dave Eggers, in What Is the What, has carried that story another step forward to take in the lassitude that has overcome many of those who originally welcomed the young Sudanese so warmly, and who have since been worn down by the neediness of young people who have lost so much. (The proceeds from the book are to go toward providing financial help for Sudanese refugees and to rebuilding southern Sudan.)

Written as a series of alternating sections or flashbacks,What Is the What—bad title, terrible cover—calls itself a novel but was created closely out of the story told to Eggers by Valentino Achak Deng, who reached Atlanta, after 14 years in refugee camps, in 2001. Achak survived the government helicopter gunship obliteration of his village in southern Sudan and a frightening and painful trudge to safety in Ethiopia. His personal experiences, as he says in a preface, are in essence no different from those depicted: Every event in the book could, and indeed did, take place, but not all to him, nor in the order presented. As such, the narrative reads very much like reporting, which accounts perhaps for its power—but also poses a number of interesting questions. Would the punch have been greater or smaller had Eggers stuck to nonfiction? What would have been lost in terms of detail or emotion had he kept to the literal truth? My feeling is that in a book like this, told in the first person by Achak, using his own name, it actually makes extraordinarily little difference. The liveliness and drive of the story are what count, and the accuracy of what he describes has been widely corroborated by others. Achak's personal testimony, whether in reality or in fiction—the tale of his walk; his constant hunger; his sense of helplessness when a boy is pulled out of line in front of him by a lion and eaten in the tall grass; his horror as he watches starving boys, many of them totally naked, tearing the flesh of a dead elephant into strips to carry away and eat; the blood trickling down their faces—is what brings the story alive. Calling it fiction becomes no more than a device, a way to build an engrossing story while remaining scrupulously honest.

Less familiar than the story of the long walk perhaps—and therefore sometimes more interesting—is Achak and Eggers' account of life in the Ethiopian refugee camp and its militarization by the Sudanese People's Liberation Army. Here, the Lost Boys were seduced or coerced into becoming boy soldiers, or used as "aid bait" to secure U.N. food rations for the militia camped not far away. Achak himself remained adamantly pacifist, refusing to follow friends when they went to train, but the brutality of the adult soldiers toward the children he witnessed is chilling. "Any boy who had shirked or misbehaved would be caned," he observes, "and for many of these boys, skeletal as they were, canings could prove debilitating, even fatal. … Boys tried to escape and were shot. Boys lost their rifles and were shot. … We lost four of the Eleven that way. … Boys make very poor soldiers. That is the problem." Though there were many children among nearby Rwanda's genocidaires, brainwashed by adult militias, this is a side to the story that is seldom recorded in any detail. Nor have other Lost Boys written at such length about everyday camp life, with its rumors and sudden upheavals, its hardship and intense friendships, or how these thousands of children turned first into adolescents and then into adults in a setting remote from anything they had even known. When Achak and his friends first set eyes on a white man, an aid official from the United Nations, they see him as "erased," his whiteness a deformity like a missing limb.

In the United States, too, Eggers carries the story on. Here again it is a troubling tale. After their initial delight in being safe and well-fed, not all the Lost Boys prospered. As P.W. Singer noted in 2004 in his excellent study Children at War, many have coped poorly, particularly when English is their third, or even fourth, language. Few have found that the meager wages they earn from meatpacking or hotel cleaning allow them to study for the education each one craves. "We wanted it all immediately," says Achak, "homes, families, college, the ability to send money home, advanced degrees, and finally some influence." After five years in the United States, Achak is still working on the front desk of a health club, as far from the college degree he dreamed about as when he first arrived. He has also been mugged by thieves, who steal most of his possessions, while the young Sudanese girl he loves has been murdered. "Our peripheral vision is poor in the U.S.," he notes; "we do not see trouble coming."

It is not, of course, all bleak. The Lost Boys who made it to the United States not only survived—bearing witness yet again to man's incredible resilience—but most have preserved some sense of hope in a better future. When Achak talks over the phone—mobile phones are an essential part of every refugee's life—to other young Sudanese scattered across every state in the United States, there is a real feeling that, despite the delays and the setbacks, despite the lack of schooling or money, the possibilities are all still there. Achak's story, like that of countless numbers of refugees successfully resettled in the United States—1.8 million arrived between 1982 and 2002—is a necessary counterpoint to the other studies of former child soldiers, stuck in refugee camps across Africa, who cannot go home, either because they have no home to go to or because as killers they are no longer welcome, and who hover around the margins of life, druggy, uneducated, and traumatized.

The Lost Boys were the lucky ones; the others never made it. Eggers' vivid and haunting story stays long in the mind as an account of what civil war does to children; and whether it is fact or fiction, in this particular case at least, is of no importance at all.

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