The million $ question
Out of sheer boredom, and because “The heartbreaking work of a staggering genius” was no where to be found, I took Dave Eggers’ “What is the What” to the Starbucks corner of Barnes & Noble and started reading. The book, we are told, is an “Autobiography” of Valentino Achak Deng, a lost son of battle-weary Southern Sudan who flees his little village of Marial Bal, through the ‘howling grey desert’ of northern Kenya, through the ‘yellow nothing’ of Ethiopia, to the safety of Atlanta (where he & his friends got harassed, molested and robbed by those who blamed he and his friends’ ancestors for selling their ancestors into slavery). On the way, he has lost his family, his innocence and two of his childhood friends (who were killed by an Ethiopian, & female, soldier who lures them out of their hiding place by an unlikely invitation: “Come to Mother, children. Come to mother”).
Make haste not to judge [!] for there is more to the book than a handful of head-scratching scenarios. There is humor, there is wit, their is a vividness that makes putting it down, even after 6 hours of intent reading, a necessary evil. The icing, and the story that lend it’s name to the title, is the myth of creation by the Dinkas (the tribe to whom Achak belonged) his father used to relate to business acquaintances after a luxurious dinner, and around a cracking wood fire.
“–When God created the earth, he first made us, the monyjang. Yes, first he made the monyjang, the first man, and he made him the tallest and strongest of the people under the sky…
“Yes, God made the monyjang tall and strong, and he made their women beautiful, more beautiful than any of the creatures on the land…
“…and whan God was done, and the monyjang were standing on the earth waiting for instruction, God asked the man, ‘Now that you are here, on the most sacred and fertile land I have, I can give you one more thing. I can give you this creature, which is called the cow…’
“…God showed man the idea of the cow, and the cow were magnificent. They were in every way exactly what the monyjang would want. the man and woman thanked God for such a gift, because they knew that the cow would bring them milk and meat and prosperity of every king. But God was not finished.
“…God said, ‘You can either have these cow, as my gift to you, or you can have the What.’
“…So the first man lifted his head to God and asked what this was, this What. ‘What is the What?’ the first man asked. And God said to the man, ‘I cannot tell you. Still, you have to choose. You have to choose between the cow and the What.’ Well then. the man and the woman could see the cow right there in front of them, and they knew that with cow they would eat and live with great contentment. They could see the cow were God’s most perfect creation, and that the cow carried something godlike within themselves. They knew that they would live in peace with the cow, and that if they helped the cow eat and drink, the cow would give man their milk, would multiply every year and keep the monyjang happy and healthy. So the first man and woman knew they would be fools to pass up the cow for this idea of the What. So the man chose cow. And God has proven that this was the correct decision. God was testing the man. He was testing the man, to see if he could appreciate what he had been given, if he could take pleasure in the bounty before him, rather than trade it for the unknown. And because the first man was able to see this, God has allowed us to prosper. The Dinka live and grow as the cow live and grow.
The grinning man tilted his head.
“–Yes, but uncle Deng, may I ask something?
My father, noting the man’s good manners, sat down and nodded.
“–You didn’t tell us the answer: What is the What?
My father shrugged. –We don’t know. No one knows.”
I haven’t finished reading the book so i haven’t discovered what the what is. However, I have a sneaking susupicion that it’s in search of this very “what” you and I are in this mess [otherwise known “as the Great US and A”). That we are going through whatever it is we are going through because of it. And would go through whatever we need go through due to, gosh darn it, our heedless refusal to settle for — a cow. We had it coming, ladies and gentlemen! None but us is to blame!
So.. [anyhow.. anywho..]
You ponder over your brand of “what”. Eye will try to see if Achak got his figured out.
Entry filed under: Latest Posts. Tags: African Literature, Autobiography, Books about Sudan, Darfur, Dave Eggers, Lost Boys, McSweenys Internet Tendency, Oral Literature, South Sudan, Sudanese Christians & Muslims, Sudanese Refugees, Valentino Achak Deng.