Slovak writer Marek Vadas, the author of the book Escape, is a special man drawn by the African continent. He made thirteen long trips there where he visited Cameroon, Chad, Gabon and Nigeria. Since his first trip to Africa, he believes that there are no time lost. In his books, he often deals with living conditions of the african children. Thus, for the story Healer (2006) he received the prestigious literary prize Anasoft Litera, and two years earlier he was nominated for the BIBIANA Prize for the best children's book with the book "Fairy tales from Black Africa".
Last week he kindly answered some of my questions.
So, what draws a Slovak writer to Africa? What called you that you went there several times for longer periods of time?
First time I visited Cameroon twenty years ago as a journalist. Since then I have returned there thirteen times and it is difficult to name only one thing that is calling me back. The buoyancy of the people's nature, ancient traditions, the intensity of their living multiplied by constant threaths and dangers.
In the book you talk about a boy who needs to leave his home because of the war and disputes that suddenly emerges in his village. The theme is very heavy for the kids in our western societies, because there was no war for at least 50 years and many generations grew up in peace, so we don't know what war really is, except what we could see on TV. And your the text is quite complex to understand, because there is no time and place relations to the actual world. Are we still talking about the kids literature or is the book, never the less we are talking about the illustrated story, intended more for their parents?
This book was created for kids as well as for their parents. I think no topic is inappropriate for the children.
I don't know how were things in Slovakia two years ago, but in Slovenia we witnessed the real calvary of the Middle East refugees, who tried to walk all the way to Western Europe. And we still hear the news weekly that the refugees from Africa still struggle to come on crowded old ships to Europe where none wants them. What does your book try to teach children?
Our media pictured the immigrants as dangerous mass, a horde of misfits that will destroy our culture – even though in fact they were refugees fleeing the war and killing. The politicians were claiming that we have to protect our christianity, and offered us a lie after lie. Whole society forgot that one of the fundamental christian values is to help the person in need. That is the reason I wanted to write about friendship and helping each other in this book.
Are people in different countries in Africa really that different between each other or are you just wanted to show the whole pallet of human behaviour and how it influences the human society as a whole?
During my travels I visited the area of Lake Chad and mountain chain Mandara that are now suffering under terror of islamic fundamentalist group Boko Haram and millions of people are on the run. I don't know what happened to my friends there, their villages no longer exist and the cities have been turned to refugee camps. This is the land I had in mind when I started to write The Escape, but I didn't set the story in specific place. There are no particular realia - this story could have happened anywhere in the world. The cities the main character is running through are the allegories of the human behavior. They represent the reactions that are most common when we dealing with something alien and unknown.
In the book you talk about human behavior that adversely affects the development of society: greed, excuses, stinginess, hatred of others, work without thinking about consequences, ignorance etc. Are our societies really immersed that badly into all of them?
If we are talking about the society in Slovakia and surrounding post-communist countries, unfortunately, the answer is yes - and the situation is getting worse. Just for example, the prime minister of one of our neighbouring countries recently refused to help fifty war orphans.
You are also a dog trainer. So there is no coincidence that the boy's best friend is a dog Alan. You made him the smartest dog in the world, much like a human - he has man's name, he learns to speak, he even dances on two feet in one of the illustrations ... he is the only one that managed to stay with the boy until the end. It seems like he is the last piece of reason that keeps the boy sane. How can an animal like a dog help children in such difficult situations like being a war refugee?
A dog can help in treating various illnesses, depression and other psychic disorders. We – my labrador and me – were working for seven years with an autistic boy. We were teaching him to speak, to focus, or to accept physical contact. His mother told me that he never noticed or cared about other children, my dog was his only friend. In the book Alan the dog remained main character's only friend and support. Without this friendship the boy will never made his journey.
It is also very unusual that through the whole story boy keeps such a positive attitude. Where does he get this optimism and strength from?
Even though the boy often happens to be on the edge, I avoided the depictions of violence. The boy never cries or complains in the story. He is driven by the faith in humanity. The Escape is a heroic and adventurous journey.
In the end boy finally finds rest in a refugee camp where after all the suffering and trauma he becomes ill and he dies. The ending feels very ambivalent - one one hand we are sad because he died, but on the other we are relieved that he doesn't suffer any more and he is united with his family.
I left the ending of the story opened. It is not clear if the boy is dying or he is in fever dreaming about reuniting with his father. The ending depends on the young reader's will. If he is willing to give boy a helping hand, there will surely be a happyend.