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Gary KristGod has a problem with me," complains Valentino Achak Deng, the subject of Dave Eggers's extraordinary new novel, What Is the What. Coming from almost any other person on the planet, this lament would appear hopelessly self-pitying. But coming from Valentino, a Sudanese refugee, it sounds almost like an understatement. At a time when the field of autobiography seems dominated by hyperbolic accounts of what might be called dramas of privilege (substance abuse, eating disorders, unloving parents, etc.), What Is the What is a story of real global catastrophe—a work of such simple power, straightforward emotion and genuine gravitas that it reminds us how memoirs can transcend the personal to illuminate large, public tragedies as well.
The book does this despite being, strictly speaking, a novel. Valentino, who survived almost 15 years of civil war and refugee-camp exile before coming to the United States in 2001, in fact does exist, but the book that purports to be his autobiography is actually a fictional recreation by Eggers. No secret is made of the fact that some of the characters in the book are composites, some episodes are invented, and much of the storyline has been reordered and reshaped for narrative effect. The result, however, is a document that—unlike so many "real" autobiographies—exudes authenticity.
—The Washington Post