Wednesday, December 21, 2011

WHAT IS THE WHAT by Dave Eggers

Should we be content with what we have or reach out for the unknown? The title stems from a fable that poses this question, and legend has it that the Sudanese chose the contentment route. Frankly, it has not worked out very well for them, as civil war has ravaged the country for years. The "lost boy" who narrates this fictionalized biography is transported to the U.S. on the heels of the 9/11 tragedy, after having lived in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya for most of his life. He does not even know the fate of his parents until he is a young man. The variety of first names by which he is known—Achak, Valentino, Dominic—underscores the fact that his identity is a moving target. His idea of "home" is always the community of his childhood, and he never gives up the notion of going back, despite the constant turmoil there. His story swings back and forth between his current struggle to finish his education in Atlanta and his previous struggles and suffering in Africa. One might assume that his life in the U.S. would be far superior, but, no, safety is still an issue. He's beaten and tied up by burglars and then is treated as a non-person at the hospital where he seeks medical attention afterward. His spirit, though, is resilient, having survived exhaustion, starvation, and disease during his several treks, with thousands of other children, from the perils of the Sudan. He reaches out for the "what"—the unknown future that awaits him, somewhere other than Atlanta.

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