The tall, quiet man sitting across from me in the diner has several names. These days he goes by Valentino Achak Deng, but in the African refugee camps he grew up in he was called Gone Far, for the hundreds of miles he walked when he fled the violence of Sudan's civil war. One girl nicknamed him Sleeper, for the time he was so exhausted he lay down in the middle of the road and tried to die. The other guy sitting across from me, next to Valentino/Gone Far/Sleeper, has just one name: Dave Eggers.
Eggers is, of course, a famous writer: he is the author of the bestselling memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It's odd that the two men even know each other, but a few years ago Deng was looking for someone to help him write his life story, and a charitable foundation for Sudanese refugees helped him reach out to Eggers. Intrigued, Eggers agreed to a meeting, and the two became friends. Now they've collaborated on a moving, frightening, improbably beautiful book, a lightly fictionalized version of Deng's life titled What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng (McSweeney's; 475 pages).
Sudan is really two countries: the north is predominantly Muslim, and the south is inhabited mostly by tribal peoples like the Dinka, of whom Deng is one. War broke out between north and south when Deng was about 6. His village was destroyed by horsemen, and many of his friends and relatives were killed or enslaved. He escaped. Along with many other boys--the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan--Deng walked hundreds of miles overland to a refugee camp in Ethiopia.
Some of the Lost Boys died of starvation and disease. Some were shot. Some were eaten by lions and crocodiles. Some went insane. War is always horrifying, but there's something uniquely awful about a child's experience of it. What Is the What has the same sick, surreal intensity as Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird. Once Deng was fleeing enemy soldiers with three other boys when a strange woman called out to them. "Don't fear me," she says in the book. "I am just a woman! I am a mother trying to help you boys." When two of the boys approached her, "the woman turned, lifting a gun from the grass, and with her eyes full of white, she shot the taller boy through the heart."
Eggers and Deng worked on What Is the What for three years, recording 100 hours of interviews and visiting Sudan together. What could have been an awkward literary three-legged race became instead a synergistic collaboration. In person there's an obvious and rather touchingly empathic bond between the two: Eggers is the confident, gregarious one, while Deng speaks in quiet, melodious, not-quite-grammatical English. "Dave would listen to me," he says, "and he would write and send me a chapter, and I see him in me. And I ask him sometimes, 'How are you able to put yourself in me?'"
In places What Is the What is surprisingly funny. Eggers explains that he didn't want the book to read like "a human-rights report." "We were trying to reflect the whole life, the complete life," he says, "not just disaster after disaster." After all, Deng spent 13 years in refugee camps. He grew up in them. He joked around with friends. He flirted with girls. "The horror was so overwhelming that for many years I never thought that I had this fun," he says. "But there are moments when I no longer recall missing my family. That was the time when I had fun."