Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Escapes: getaways and breakaways

Alexander Dolinin, author of Against Destiny

(print ISBN 9781601641731, Adobe ebook ISBN 9781601643261, Kindle ISBN 9781601643278, Sony ISBN 9781601643285)

In modern English the word ‘escape’ has many meanings. Along with an escape from bondage, imprisonment or captivity, it may mean just a nice vacation somewhere in Mexico, the Caribbean, the Canary Islands or some other part of the world. There is a Toronto travel agency called “Escape Tours”. And there is even a car model “Ford Escape”. This meaning probably involves the idea of an escape from the hard chores of everyday live, work, etc. The escape is only temporary, with a clear plan to return.

But this is not an original meaning. Initially the term involved a person who was subjected to the ordeal of imprisonment, captivity, slavery or bondage and who chose to challenge his fate rather than submit to it. In this case certainly there is no thought of ever going back, where in the best case the escapee would face punishment and return to the former captivity or bondage. In the worst case the returned escapee would face death, often a very painful one, as with escapees from 20th century Nazi or Soviet concentration camps or, earlier, runaways from especially brutal slave-masters. Reaching the desired destination far beyond the reach of the pursuers was the ultimate goal and desired outcome.

In Russia and in the American South, where for centuries up to half of the population were in bondage, the motive of escaping slavery or serfdom became an integral part of popular culture, oral tradition and much of literature. As we know, in 19th century US there was a whole organization named the “Underground Railway” which provided support for fugitive black slaves on their way to Canada, where they became the ancestors of some present-day Black Canadians. In Russia most of the original colonists of the Don river region, Siberia and other remote regions were actually runaway serfs. The Cossacks of Don, Kuban’, Urals and numerous regions of Siberia are their descendants. In Central America and Caribbean there were also large settlements of runaway slaves known as Maroons. The best documentary work about runaway Black slaves is Daniel Hill’s “The Freedom Seekers”, while the best modern fiction book is Lawrence Hill’s “The Book of Negroes”.

One of the hardest places to escape from is a concentration camp or maximum security prison, where the inmates are under almost constant surveillance. Nevertheless some inmates managed to escape even from there. Thus, Giacomo Casanova, the most famous womanizer in history, was detained in the Venetian doge’s personal dungeon for a year and managed to escape. About 130 Nazi concentration camp inmates also succeeded in escaping from their camps, outsmarting their guards and the camp administration. No one knows how many labour camp inmates in the Stalinist USSR escaped. Such escapes are described in some chapters of Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago”. So far as far as I know there has been no fiction written about them. My novel Against Destiny seems to be the first piece of fiction about a successful escape from a Soviet labour camp.

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