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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stella Clarke

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.

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