Lost Boy is given a voice
A new book charting a child’s flight from conflict brings home the human cost of civil war, writes
SYMPATHY is not the abundant resource it could be. The world needs more of it. Where can it be found? Well, according to leading American philosopher Martha Nussbaum ( in Poetic Justice), sympathy is found in books. Novels open us up to a spectrum of otherwise unavailable human experiences. Exposure to these makes us wiser, more compassionate and more humane.
I mention Nussbaum’s idea here because What is the What is a rich deposit of sympathy ( though in no way crassly sentimental); it is a monumental eye- opener, a tremendous assault on American ignorance, and ours too.
Those shocking little windows into suffering provided by the news media stun us briefly but leave us feeling useless and remote. What is the What doesn’t just open a window; it collapses the space between us — happy in the comfort that Western life affords us — and Valentino Achak Deng, a victim of the Sudanese civil war.
Deng’s story relates the desperate exodus of survivors, mainly young boys, from unbelievably savage assaults on their villages carried out by Arab raiders. These Lost Boys eventually band together and cross Sudan to seek sanctuary in Ethiopia. The boys starve, grow ill, fall back and die with numbing regularity. Their trek is a ferocious adventure story for grown- ups.
Deng’s family is probably dead; he is exposed to the most frightening world imaginable. He sees things a child should never see. Nights are made of inscrutable blackness and filled with the startling, crashing sounds of hungry animals. Lions pick off the boys as they walk. Days are made of burning sun, sudden strafings and bombings. This is an epic, with a leaden cargo of extreme horror, but miraculously Eggers takes the weight out of it.
This is Eggers’ genius, his gift, what made his previous memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius an extraordinary international bestseller. That narrative was based on his experience, as an adolescent, of losing both parents to cancer.
He has developed a voice imbued with the detachment, naive insolence and ignorance of the curious child, a child capable of instinctive compassion. This strategy distantly resonates with other juvenile viewpoints: Charles Dickens’s, Mark Twain’s, even Italo Calvino’s ( in his first novel The Path to the Spiders’ Nests ).
Deng is able to tell, for example, with nonchalant objectivity, how a surprisingly fat dog has fed on human corpses, how changes take place in people’s bodies and behaviour as they relinquish life. This storyteller can stare into the sun of things adults cannot deal with. His tale serves as an effective route into African struggle, in contrast, for example, with Andrew Miller’s more aloof treatment of the Rwandan genocide in The Optimists.
What is the what? According to a creation story of the Dinka people ( Deng’s tribe), God once required them to choose between looking after cows and some unknown form of life: the what. They chose the former, with its clear and eternal benefits. However, Deng’s expulsion from this Eden forces him into an early and tough education into the what — what else is out there — from the apocalyptic destruction of his childhood world to the bizarre and wondrous mess of the US.
Intimations that the US is probably not heaven ultimately reach Deng in his final transit from Sudan to the US, when the Lost Boys witness media images of 9/ 11. Throughout, however, Eggers keeps a surreal interpenetration of the First and Third worlds going, to dramatic effect. Barely alive, Deng gets to ride a glittering new bicycle in the desert; an impoverished Sudanese village boy facing death wears cloud- white sneakers; a new computer arrives into the midst of dust and nothing. More important, with provocative results, Eggers has Deng recall much of this harrowing story from the position of his resettled life in Atlanta as he waits to be freed after being beaten and tied up during a petty robbery at gunpoint.
Apparently Deng and many other Lost Boys from Sudan were the recipients of American charity and beneficiaries of celebrity consciences ( including those of Jane Fonda and Angelina Jolie). This US framing of Deng’s tale creates an ironic dimension that plays out through Deng’s encounters with muggers and mentors, aggressors and nurturers. Like a skeletal, battered Colossus, Deng has one foot planted in American wealth and the other in African deprivation. Yet the casual, quotidian violence, the insidious forms of fear, stupidity and racism that ordinary Americans live with, makes him long for ordinary African terrors.
Now adult, Deng is acutely aware of the extent to which the rescued Lost Boys fail to behave well or show gratitude to their US saviours. On one hand, because he is a fine person, this causes him acute sorrow and embarrassment. On the other, he needs America to reflect and understand. He could have found no better instrument than Eggers to help him achieve this.
This novel is embedded in a deeply ethical foundation, prefaced by Deng as a facet of his struggle to have faith in humanity, and intended by Eggers to help fund ( with all proceeds from this novel) support for Sudanese refugees and reconstruction. Dig a little deeper and you find that Eggers is an unusual example of a creative, independent, 21st- century philanthropist. Check out 826 Valencia, his non- profit educational initiative in the US, and the human rights concerns of Voice of Witness. He has the social conscience of Dickens on a global scale and talent to match.
Deng is intelligent, funny, stoic and blindingly honest, a captivating narrator. His boyish voice is so vigorous and engaging that despite what he endures you’ll hardly notice the distance covered. What’s more, because Deng is smart and gets a little schooling, Eggers is able to indicate the complex political forces at work behind the boy’s suffering. In this fiercely moving, enlightening novel, Eggers scales down a vast humanitarian tragedy to the size of something with which we can ( almost) cope. Stella Clarke, a Canberra- based literary critic, has a PhD from Warwick University and has taught extensively in Britain and Australia.