The power of sto­ries to help heal the dev­as­ta­tion of war and heart­break is il­lu­mi­nated in Dave Eg­gers’ new novel about one of the Lost Boys of Su­dan, writes John Free­man

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

THREE months ago, at the Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle Awards in New York City, Dave Eg­gers sub­tly gave away the rid­dle to the ti­tle of his as­ton­ish­ing new novel, What is the What. While two other fiction fi­nal­ists read from their work, Eg­gers brought Su­danese mi­grant Valentino Achak Deng, the sub­ject and in­spi­ra­tion of the novel, on to the stage. Both were wear­ing black suits, white shirts, no tie. ‘‘ We tend to dress alike af­ter this process,’’ Eg­gers joked.

Eg­gers then read for 11/ min­utes, fol­lowed by Deng, who voiced the book’s clos­ing few sen­tences into the kind of si­lence that comes when a room­ful of New York pub­lish­ing ex­ec­u­tives lis­ten to some­one who has lost ev­ery­thing but his story.

‘‘ What­ever I do, how­ever I find a way to live,’’ Deng read, ‘‘ I will tell th­ese sto­ries; it gives me strength, al­most un­be­liev­able strength, to know that you are here. How can I pre­tend that you do not ex­ist? It would be al­most as im­pos­si­ble as you pre­tend­ing that I do not ex­ist.’’

In a coun­try that took years to ac­knowl­edge geno­cide in Dar­fur, let alone the north- south con­flict in Su­dan — which Deng es­caped by the skin of his teeth — this was a pow­er­ful moral state­ment. It also ex­plains why Eg­gers’ novel has be­come such an im­prob­a­ble best­seller.

Pub­lished in the US last year by Eg­gers’ McSweeney’s im­print, What is the What has gone on to sell more than 120,000 copies in hard­back, a huge in­crease from Eg­gers’ pre­vi­ous two works of fiction. In the mid­dle of its run, Pub­lish­ers Group West, McSweeney’s dis­trib­u­tor, went bank­rupt, leav­ing them to scram­ble to get out more copies.

Since the pub­li­ca­tion, Deng has been on the road con­stantly, de­spite his classes at Al­legheny Col­lege in Penn­syl­va­nia, where he is com­plet­ing his de­gree. His speak­ing per­for­mances are packed and the pro­ceeds go to a foun­da­tion to help re­build his home vil­lage Mar­ial Bai, an ini­tia­tive that Eg­gers as­sisted him to set up ( at valenti­noachak­deng. com).

Six months ago, how­ever, all this hul­la­baloo was a long way off. The day af­ter the fin­ished books ar­rived from the printer, Eg­gers and Deng sat in a tiny, cramped ho­tel room off Man­hat­tan’s Wash­ing­ton Square Park, the neigh­bour­hood where Henry James and Willa Cather once lived and wrote their nov­els.

Look­ing at the state of his ho­tel room, Deng might have been any other col­lege stu­dent en­joy­ing New York City dur­ing au­tumn break. The bed was un­made, a pair of pants splayed across the floor and an open box of pow­dered bis­cuits beck­oned. ‘‘ It’s not nor­mally like this,’’ the 190cm Deng says, tidy­ing up af­ter him­self.

It is al­most en­cour­ag­ing to see this lit­tle bit of youth­ful nor­mal­ity from the 25- year- old Su­danese man. Af­ter all, his was an any­thing but or­di­nary child­hood.

Born in south­ern Su­dan, he fled his vil­lage at the age of nine dur­ing the sec­ond Su­danese civil war ( 1983- 2005). Arab mili­ti­a­men burned ev­ery build­ing to the ground and Deng was sep­a­rated from his mother and fa­ther. He had no idea whether they were alive or dead.

Along with an es­ti­mated 20,000 other boys, he spent the next decade run­ning for his life. He evaded li­ons and rebel gun­fight­ers and walked to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, where he lived a nearly nor­mal life in bursts, all the while hop­ing for a greater es­cape to the US. In a bizarre fluke, he was on a plane de­part­ing for the US on the morn­ing of Septem­ber 11.

Not long af­ter he made it to the US with a group of Su­danese who came to be known as the Lost Boys, he heard from Eg­gers, the best- sell­ing mem­oirist and founder of McSweeney’s, the pub­lish­ing house and spon­sor­ing arm of writ­ing labs such as 826 Va­len­cia.

Eg­gers had been tipped off to Deng’s story by an ac­tivist in At­lanta. ‘‘ My at­ti­tude was, it can’t hurt at all to hear his story,’’ Eg­gers says.

What fol­lowed from here, ac­cord­ing to Eg­gers and Deng, was at times a friend­ship, at times an un­holy al­liance be­tween fact and fiction and al­ways a labour of love. For a long time, Eg­gers worked on the book as if it were a bi­og­ra­phy un­til it be­came clear that stick­ing to the fac­tual record would be too lim­it­ing.

‘‘ All along he was the fact- checker,’’ Eg­gers says. ‘‘ I’m ter­ri­fied about get­ting ev­ery­thing wrong. Any time I wrote some­thing, I’d send it to him and ask: ‘ Would it have hap­pened this way?’ As of­ten as not I was right. But over time I guessed bet­ter. In the end, though, it didn’t

have to be fac­tu­ally true, it had to be plau­si­ble.’’

Deng, as one of the cel­e­brated Lost Boys, had been in­ter­viewed be­fore but never in this fash­ion. ‘‘ There were times when I would pause when Dave sent a [ sec­tion] and I won­dered: ‘ How is he able to imag­ine this?’ And I’d ask him: How do you man­age to put your­self in my place?’ ’’

It helped that the two of them trav­elled to­gether to Su­dan, hop­ping on a cargo plane car­ry­ing re­lief sup­plies. It also helped that Eg­gers, as he de­scribes in his de­but mem­oir, A Heart­break­ing Work of Stag­ger­ing Ge­nius, had ex­pe­ri­enced loss. Eg­gers’ par­ents died within months of each other from can­cer, leav­ing him to take care of his lit­tle brother.

But as soon as What is the What be­came a novel, it needed shape. Rather than in­vent, they needed to cut back. The de­tails were just over­whelm­ing. For in­stance, on his walk from Su­dan to Ethiopia, Deng was at­tacked by li­ons nu­mer­ous times, not just once. Sev­eral of Deng’s friends com­mit­ted sui­cide.

As­ton­ish­ingly, none of this caused Deng, who is Catholic, to ques­tion his faith. Af­ter ar­riv­ing in At­lanta, he says: ‘‘ I kind of re­flected on my sit­u­a­tion and what I had ex­pe­ri­enced. Drink­ing stag­nant wa­ter; eat­ing food that was com­pletely wild; eat­ing wild beans and trees and fruit; and not dy­ing. I should have died. Some­thing kept me alive. I thought, that must be God. And when I learned about mir­a­cles, I thought, th­ese are cer­tainly mir­a­cles.’’ As Deng talks, Eg­gers lis­tens qui­etly and does not com­ment. It’s clear this is Deng’s way of mak­ing sense of the world. This is his large story. There is the Book and the book, and What is the What will re­main the book. But he is proud.

‘‘ Wow, it feels good!’’ Deng says, lift­ing up the novel, a huge smile on his face. ‘‘ Ev­ery time I come in here, I pick up [ What is the What] and hold it. The first time I saw it, on Sun­day night, I was like, awe­some!’’

Sit­ting on the bed, lean­ing against the wall, Eg­gers smiles. ‘‘ There isn’t a word in here that Val hasn’t read,’’ he says.

‘‘ I have a printed man­u­script at home,’’ Deng adds, then asks Eg­gers: ‘‘ Did you add more af­ter that?’’ A smile breaks across Eg­gers’ face and he smirks at Deng. ‘‘ Yeah, I added some re­ally em­bar­rass­ing episodes that I made up.’’

For a mo­ment it seems as if Deng is go­ing to take his col­lab­o­ra­tor lit­er­ally, then Eg­gers laughs. ‘‘ No. He saw ev­ery draft.’’

It’s an awk­ward mo­ment, but in the gap comes a re­lease. Deng laughs. Can hu­mour re­ally carry the bur­den of the war or heart­break? It can, and so can sto­ries, Eg­gers seems to be say­ing. In a world where there is an­guish and geno­cide and loss, that is the what. John Free­man is pres­i­dent of the US Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle. What is the What is pub­lished this month by Hamish Hamil­ton, $ 29.95.

Fact as fiction: Writer Dave Eg­gers and Su­danese refugee Valentino Achak Deng, whose story he tells

Il­lus­tra­tion: Sturt Krygs­man

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