A taut fable with real-world parallels

Dave Eggers’ visit to South Sudan in 2014 planted the seeds of The Parade.
Dave Eggers’ visit to South Sudan in 2014 planted the seeds of The Parade.PHOTO: EM J. STAPLES

FICTION

THE PARADE

By Dave Eggers

Hamish Hamilton/Hardback/ 179 pages/$32.10/Books Kinokuniya/ 5 stars

Prolific American writer Dave Eggers is today one of literature's most influential and engaging novelists - his astute eye and sharp nose for timely issues mean his writing inevitably carries some form of sociopolitical impact.

He tackled big tech and the threat of a dystopian surveillance society in The Circle (2013), while the award-winning biographical What Is The What (2006) is a heartrending look at the world through the eyes of a Sudanese refugee.

The Parade is likewise provocative, being set in a country that has been split into two by a decade-long civil war which displaced a million people, exiled another million and orphaned 10,000 children.

The malarial, equatorial country is unnamed. But Eggers has said the seeds of the book were planted on a visit to South Sudan in 2014.

At 179 pages, The Parade is a taut read that transports the reader to the scene of the civil strife with journalistic observations. Eggers writes: "Everything around them was standard for a developing country after a war. The soda bottles full of diesel, lined up on the roadside and sold by shrunken grandmothers. The stray dogs and children holding babies. The diagonal plumes of faraway fires. The spent rifle shells."

The writing is almost as detached as the relationship of Four, the protagonist, with his surroundings.

Four is one of two foreign contractors who have been parachuted into the country to pave and paint a new highway connecting the rural south to the capital in the north.

Company rules dictate that they work incognito to reduce risks - such as kidnapping for ransom - that may come with knowledge of their background.

Four and his colleague, Nine, are to complete the highway in time for the titular parade that the country's new leader has planned in a grand show of political theatre to herald a new era of hope, peace and wealth.

Four, who is on his 63rd assignment, having worked eight years paving 7,500km of roads in four continents, is wary of trouble and a family man who only wants to finish the job and head home.

But Nine is a curious adventurous rookie who flouts company protocol, sleeps with the locals and mingles with members of various tribes.

The clash in their personalities and the inevitable interactions with the natives form the heart of the story as it travels the 230km from the country's south to the gleaming capital.

And looking beyond these characters, it is easy to see the real-world parallels that may have inspired The Parade.

Time and again, peaceful protest movements in Africa and the Middle East to overthrow brutal dictators end up in more senseless bloodshed when a new military junta seizes power.

And The Parade, too, is almost brimming with hope until the whiplash of an ending that will stay with this reviewer for some time to come.

If you like this, read: What Is The What by Dave Eggers (2008 edition, Penguin, $19.80, Books Kinokuniya). A boy, Valentino Achak Deng, gets separated from his family in war-torn Sudan and is forced to embark on a harsh journey to safety with other orphaned "lost boys".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 02, 2019, with the headline 'A taut fable with real-world parallels'. Print Edition | Subscribe