On that day and in the days to come, when a boy was going to die, he would first stop talking. His throat would be too dry and to speak required too much energy. Then his eyes would sink deeper, circled in ever darker shadows. He would no longer answer to his own name. His walk would slow, his feet shuffling, and he would be among the boys who would rest longer. Eventually a dying boy would find a tree, and he would sit against the tree and fall asleep. When his head touched the tree, the life in him would fall away and his flesh would return to the earth.
The narrator of Dave Eggers’ What Is the What circles the subject of death concentrically – recounting terror, outrage and anger by turns, as he both fears for his own life and watches his Sudanese Lost Boy compatriots die in an endless variety of awful, sudden or slow, often shocking ways; by slaughter at the hands of Arab horsemen, attack by predators, aeroplanes, disease, infection and starvation. Mainly though he’s resigned to the fact that he can’t predict which of his companions will survive the terrible journey, cannot know for sure if he himself will make it through. Obsessed with this question Achak tries for while to use a friend, another lost boy walking beside him, as a kind of index of his own health.
In the mirror of William K, I did not look well that day. My cheeks were sunken, my eyes ringed in blue. My tongue was white, my hipbones were visible through my shorts…
Very often through the book (which I wrote about already here) Eggers returns to the topic of the flimsy separation between life and death, puzzling at the all-too-easily passed border between survival and extinction, existence and disappearance. Its a distinction that he sees can exist even in life itself, when at another comical and chilling point in the book he meets a solitary adult living alone in the jungle, hiding from everyone. The un-named adult gives him food, and jabbers continuously as he eats, lecturing Achak:
I don’t live anywhere, and you should learn from this. Why do you think I am alive, boy? I’m alive because no one knows I’m here. I live because no one knows I’m here. I live because I do not exist.