On a hunt for new authors, I tried Dave Eggers’ You Shall Know Our Own Velocity (my review is on a blog from July 23, 2007). Thumbs down. I had no desire to seek out another Eggers. But my sister recommended this one, so I bravely sallied forth. It turned out to be a journey well worth making.
A memoir disguised as a novel, WHAT is the WHAT traces the journey of one Valentino Achak Deng from his southern Sudanese village where, when he was but seven years old, he and his family were caught in the ugly and shameful civil war which continues to this day. Shameful because of all the our unjustified interventions we’ve this one has somehow been beyond our means. But hold on. That last sentence violates the tone of the book. Horrid as were the events that happened to Achak and the other thousands and thousands of the “Lost Boys” of the Sudan, this is not a novel of protest or a scream for revenge. It is not The Wretched of the Earth or even Les Miserables.
Eggers is most ingenious in choosing his storytelling devices. The story begins not in Africa, but in Atlanta, where Achak as a young adult is being victimized in a brutal home invasion armed robbery. He is pistol whipped, trussed up, and held captive for quite a while–apparently so that his captors have time to get a vehicle big enough to carry his TV. Keeping watch is a young boy named Michael, whose relationship to the captors is unclear. Though his mouth is taped, Achak begins mentally telling his story to the young watchman, hoping to telepathically gain sympathy and release. Thus, we are launched into a simultaneous modern crime story and that of an unbelievable odyssey across an African wilderness filled with hazards ranging from starvation to fighter planes and bombers to human-eating lions.
Achak’s voice throughout is one of a gentle, moral innocent who maintains his goodness even in the face of the worst kind of inhumanity and deprivation. Following him throughout the journey is the title question, which I will leave it to you to discover as you read. Though you know he’ll end up in Atlanta, there’s plenty of suspense. And there’s suspense as well about the outcome of the robbery. Enthralling, really. This is so much better than the Dumb and Dumber travesty of You Shall Know Our Own Velocity that it’s hard to believe this is the same author. But it is. Now maybe I’ll go out and find something else of his. In the meantime, however, I’m very happy with this little gem. Buy it. Proceeds go to a foundation to help many of these people who were never lucky enough to make it to the U.S. to be robbed, kidnapped, refused hospital treatment, and have their crime utterly ignored by the police. Whoops, there I go again violating the tone of the book. Or did I? You decide.