Finished What is the What by Dave Eggers about a month ago – just before I moved into my own house. I had a lot I wanted to say about it when it was all fresh in my mind, but most of that has fled. What remains though, is that it is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I think I may have a tendency to say that, but this time it’s true. The story, although at times drawn out and arguably sensationalized, is, when boiled down, nothing short of incredible. It is the account of one of the “lost boys of Sudan” and his experiences over twenty years time, first walking from his burnt village in southern Sudan to Ethiopia and later to Kenya and then living his life in a refugee camp before being chosen to be “resettled” in Atlanta. It’s the kind of thing that after reading any of your difficulties seem to pale in comparison.
The writing seems choppy at first. Almost overly-simplified sentences. Until you realize it’s written in the exact tone of a Sudanese speaking English as his second or third language. Stories of war and refugees are something most of us would rather not hear – mainly because they have a tendency to be a little depressing – but this one is worth the read. You won’t be disappointed – until the pages run out and you realize the next thing you read won’t be nearly as good.
Aside from the power of the story itself, the history and timeline it covers of Sudan is fascinating. Darfur has reached a kind of pop status at this point akin to Tibet: everyone seems to know of it, and of course what’s best for it, but no one really knows the slightest beyond a sound bit they heard once, a university newspaper article they found on the bus or a bumper sticker they saw last week. Their chances of finding it on a map would be even slimmer. What is the What isn’t about Darfur – the story predates it’s chicness – but it is about Sudan and to the outside world the two have become one in the same.
I wish I’d taken notes on some of the stats because some of them are pretty incredible – almost as incredible as that a civil war lasting 22 years and claiming 1.9 million lives is chronicled in a novel (or even a bumper sticker), rather then on the nightly news.