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This book can be seen as an impostor's work because it is written by a well known American white author and teacher, active in humanitarian causes , about the life of an African Sudanese refugee who was part of the great massacres of the Darfur area and fled his village in a group of the famous "Lost Boys of Sudan" to seek refuge in Ethiopia and in Kenya UN camps. The author and the actual actor of this horrendous adventure are totally foreign to one another, come from different cultures and continents, and naturally the self appointed writer, Eggers ,was accused by critics of "expropriating another man's identity " in order to write a false auto biography. Is it worth reading in this viewpoint?
Certainly, the harrowing epic of flight, pursuit, danger and utter spoliation of a people, the Dinka of southern Sudan, is ideal material for dolorous and tragic fiction dressed in the memoir of a real life lived by an actual new American who is Valentino or Achak ,in a book that would of course be hugely popular .This is exactly what happened and the talent of Dave Eggers is felt throughout the tale to produce enough emotion , drama, suspense and fury against the horrible Muslim aggressors of the North to create indeed an accomplished "page turner."
Yet, the book is worthwhile as a work of literature because the voice of Achak is heard in all its capacity to evoke the ineradicable losses and alienation of such refugees in western countries: the complete loss of their culture (agrarian, simple , physically close knit),of their basic happiness and established place in society , and then as a result their absolute failure in the USA of today. It is perhaps the greatest surprise of the book: the horror of American life for these poor Africans, who have been completely assisted after their terrible trek and do not know how to live in a democracy without great mental anguish. They understand nothing of the elemental toughness of American culture: survive and be responsible, accept competition, have bad paying jobs for a long time , work incessantly , defend oneself against aggression and theft of all kinds , find sex and love without pre –arranged marriages form the home country etc.. It is not possible apparently for them, it is too late .. Western life is so tough and incomprehensible to them that they spend their life on the mobile phone to hundred other Sudanese refugees in hopeless self help conversations or emailing to Africa… which means not doing the essential thing an immigrant must do in order to integrate: to know and talk to local people and neighbors, to make American friends, to do what Americans do to enjoy themselves , to learn the culture and the history of the USA . No immigrant usually learns how to do all these things but the Sudanese are worse somehow. They cannot separate their dreams of instant paradise ( i.e the idealized USA ) from the reality of building a decent life as an average citizen and accept an average life. Because they all thought that they were such gifted individuals, that God was protecting them especially,that they were expected to somehow redeem their poor country by becoming rich American businessmen and go back as political geniuses… And what happens in reality ? These poor kids end up in brutal fights with black American hoodlums who despise them , collapse in drugs and even prison ,or are embraced by humanitarian whites ,who offer them a week end in their suburban home etc; It is grotesque and pathetic, such a failure which the reader feels more than the actual victims perhaps point to their African saga ( the long march amongst attacks by lions, serpents , Muslim militia and the specter of becoming a child soldier) as a life of courage and absolute realism which is now in retrospect , bathed in nostalgia.
The title of the book refers to the "What" as being the riddle posed by God to Man: "the What " is what he has given to you and how to appreciate it .In the case of the Dinka, it is Peace and bountiful Cattle rt raise. This is naturally the Pastoral life of the High plateau tribes of East Africa, from Sudan , Ethiopia and Kenya ; a life ruined by civil war which means the taking of fertile lands by armed Muslims from the North and their atrocious president Al Bashkir and the forceful removing of populations , and later, the expropriation of tribal lands where oil was discovered in the soil. The hand of AL Quaida is here everywhere to be seen since bin Laden made so much money in Sudan. It is indeed an historical tragedy.
We have here in a sense the heroic life of rural survivors , who do not know how to survive in a society of plenty and materialistic achievement ; what is a suburban mall in the face of an empty desert surrounded by blue mountains under a huge African sky with childhood mates sleeping on the ground next to you ,with lions roaming silently in the bushes . Nothing but paradise lost .