eggers and the lost boys


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.

more from Slate here.