Or, why I'm not reading Dave Eggers' What Is the What.
I’m an animal lover, but I usually want to put down — in several ways — books narrated by quadrupeds. First-person animals are my ultimate pet peeve (forgive me), tripping the leap of faith required by fiction, second only to Alberto Gonzalez.
Surely, animal streams of thought are so terrifically varied from ours that grafting them to heroic narratives for palatability are, essentially, warm-and-fuzzy exercises in reductionist husbandry. Perhaps it’s that undercurrent of Disney anthropomorphism, even couched in seemingly compelling pathos, peril, and humor (see The White Bone, Giraffe, and Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife, respectively), that smells of stepping in literary manure more than anything else.
Or so I reasoned before happening upon the opening lines of Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s The Book of Chameleons, issued from a tiger gecko: “I was born in this house, and grew up here. I’ve never left. As it gets late I press my body against the window and look at the sky. I like watching the flames, the racing clouds, and above them, angels — hosts of angels — shaking down the sparks from their hair, flapping down their broad fiery wings. The sight is always the same.” The vision promised a heightened perception, possibly spiked by magic realism, with a lilt like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, all deftly crystallized in Daniel Hahn’s translation of the Portuguese. Despite the scales, I was sold.
(That, or I’m just a sucker for seraphim: I realized, in retrospect, that the passage recalled a favorite hallucinatory scene from the story “Emergency” by Denis Johnson: “On the far side of the field, just beyond the curtains of the snow, the sky was torn away and the angels were descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity. The sight of them cut through my heart and down the knuckles of my spine, and if there’d been anything in my bowels I would have messed my pants from fear. Georgie opened his arms and cried out, ‘It’s the drive-in, man!’”)
The gecko, later dubbed Eulalio, describes sharing the bookish home of one Felix Ventura in contemporary Angola . Felix, an albino, sells fictitious pasts to Angolans seeking a more sensational or anonymous genealogy and personal history than those wrought during the interminable post-revolutionary civil war that ripped through the African nation: “I create plots, I invent characters, but rather than keeping them trapped in a book I give them life, launching them out into reality.” The only certainty in this place, where reality is a shell game, is Eulalio’s mesmerizing gaze, recording actions, reinterpreting them in dreams, and functioning as a sort of confessor for Felix. It is a world of many worlds or, like the house is described, “a ship (filled with voices) moving up-river.”
Despite using Felix’s services to escape or embody more fully their identities, a war photographer, a Communist security agent, a government minister and Felix’s love interest cannot ultimately escape their own and ultimately each other’s pasts. Without divulging too many spoilers, the revelation and clash of identities exposes the infighting, imprisonment, and torture of competing revolutionaries.
The interplay of truth and fiction, both personal and political, is endlessly fertile ground, no matter how many previous novels have cropped out of it. “The principal difference between a dictatorship and a democracy,” writes Agualusa, “is that in the former there exists only one truth, the truth as imposed by power, while in free countries every man has the right to defend his own version of events. Truth…is a superstition.” The idea is applicable to plenty of stories born out of Africa’s post-colonial civil strife, including Dave Eggers’ latest “heartbreaking” work, What Is the What.
The book’s audacious premise is that it’s the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a real-life refugee from Sudan who collaborated with Eggers and penned a preface. As Lee Siegel writes in “The Niceness Racket,” “Eggers could have just as well have transcribed Deng’s incredible journey without fictionalizing it… The eerie, slightly sickeningly quality about What Is the What is that Deng’s personhood has been displaced by someone else’s style and sensibility — by someone else’s story. Deng survived his would-be killers in the Sudan, only to have his identity erased here.”
What Is the What — whose title comes from a Sudanese proverb warning against the unknown — and The Book of Chameleons each demonstrate an idea about how to fictionalize real-life political bloodshed and meaningfully portray its horrors. Genocide and counter-insurgency are vastly different creatures, but both beg for a point of view as close to an authentic witness as possible that does not curdle in post-colonial haughtiness. So is there much of a difference, then, in tyrannically refracting Deng’s attitudes (to paraphrase Siegel) and ventriloquizing, say, a pig who narrowly escapes the slaughterhouse?
The reason why The Book of Chameleons opens up a lifeline to that period in Angolan history so accurately is precisely because of its hyper-reality. Eulalio, as it turns out, is reincarnated and flashes of his former life ripple through his existence as he fights scorpions and laughs in a way naturally peculiar to his species. He takes on the incorporeal quality of being a witness to history, of containing Angola as a mirror contains its reflection. The torture of two characters cuts through this entrancing worldview with the power of light disrupting a dream. What Is the What, on the other hand, remains an undignified mirage and, again to quote Siegel, “one more instance of the accelerating mash-up of truth and falsehood in the culture, which mirrors and — who knows? — maybe even enables the manipulation of truth in politics.”
If you’re looking for “trueheartedness,” the trademark raison d’etre of Eggers and McSweeney’s machine, then look no further than a gecko and leave literary lizards to their own devices.
Between the Covers is a biweekly book review and publishing analysis.