A boy named Dominic goes out looking for a medicine that will help his father recover from a serious accident. Along the way, he visits strange countries and meets strange people; memory island with black and white statues; the red desert with the five-storey pyramid; the upside-down house, and the girl with the closed eyes. In all these places, he has great adventures, he takes risks, enjoys life and at the end, besides finding the medicine, he realises that he has also discovered the most important values of life. In this way, the child has become a responsible teenager.
Τhe fascination of a modern Myth
Manos Kondoleon, who is well known for his rich contribution to children’s literature, describes a voyage in his most recent book. Not a voyage to the Underworld, but to the Upper World! And more specifically, to the realm of Imagination and Myth, particularly favoured by this writer. It would be hard to disagree with the view of publisher Stephanos Patakis, that “the change in living conditions, the technological advances, the serious problems of our times, and the changes in the educational system have broadened children’s and young people’s scope of interests,” especially since it is known that children today “grow up faster than we did”.
Mr Kondoleon, of course, is aware of this reality, and shows it in Dominic. It’s just that here he relies mainly on the fascination of a modern Myth, on creating an exotic atmosphere and projecting surrealist elements, which would be highly appropriate for the cinema, but with an immediate counterpart in human thought, in terms of people’s dreams, pain and mistakes, in terms of their character. And it is not, I imagine, accidental that this human path leads upwards toward the Light: Health, Peace, Love, Happiness, Creation!
Through the narration of an imaginary voyage, with various strange stops along the way, a number of unexpected things happen, accompanied by humanistic reflections, an exciting pace, brilliant poetic images and metaphors of the sea, for example on p.115, (“it sighs like a tired working woman who has dropped off to sleep”). There are rapid dialogues and profuse tenderness and emotion, pain and passion, and those ten heart-rending women dressed in mourning black searching on the beach for the remains of their loved ones (p. 112-117), the advice; “let your heart look together with your eyes” (p. 123) and others. But above all the miraculous Love of a 12-year-old boy for his sick father. And the wonderful family finale where the delightful little heroine of one of the author’s earlier stories (“The day it snowed in the loft”) is brought back to life: sister there, and why not here as well, of our hero Dominic...
A voyage to the land of
magic symbols or
an adventure in search of values
With the publishing of his book Dominic, Manos Kondoleon has, I believe, passed into a different stage of his writing. There were already signs of this in Two stories that ask (Ankyra 1990), linking the fairy-tale and symbolic elements in his works for younger children with the realism of his books for older people.
With this combination - admittedly a difficult one for a novel, without clear dividing lines, where one element (reality) infiltrates the other (dream-magic-imaginary-symbolic) – he approaches a poetic style of writing, with symbols of archetypal origin, giving a surrealistic dimension to the actions of his heroes.
I quote: “You will always go forward straight ahead. At every step you take, your body will regain something of its earlier form. At every step you take, the light of the candles will dim, and in its place the sunlight will bathe you with more and more of its rays. At each step you take, the silence will be rent by some sounds, by more and more sounds, sounds that your own body will be giving forth...” (p. 105)
In this book, between the realistic element (beginning: Dominic’s father is injured) and the magic (end: his father is cured), the most important things are the intervening imaginary events (nine chapters of the book). Here Dominic – through the plot that unfolds gradually during his three-part journey (based on his decision to take action and to help, the escalation of his tests, and the solution with the accomplishment of his mission) within a short narrative period (just a few days, a fact which is exploited by the writer to accelerate the pace of events), and the viewpoint of a third person (which permits distancing that allows the reader to take a critical stance in observing the dream-fantasy events – acquires the power of knowledge to cure his father, while having the tragic dimension of the hero who through adventures and risks, and by overcoming human nature and human shortcomings, arrives at knowledge and the maturation of the soul with his innocence intact and without “cost” – how else, since he is a child – through experience, vindication and the victory of conscience at the level of conquering the surrealistic element, as a result of the unlimited power of the human being.
So Dominic, in his desire to save his father, whom science has more or less written off, throws himself into an unprecedented struggle; he thinks simply, consciously, and intelligently. Everything is possible for him, since he has the help of dreams and the unlimited desire beyond the real, at the frontiers of magic, of the surrealistic element, which is represented by a daisy and a clay star – a fragment that guides him to the realm of non-real but “achievable” states.
Was this the ancient motif that passed into tradition and folk songs? that to obtain something we want very much, we must pass some tests, which allowed the author to rework this story into a work of literary specifications, showing that it is nothing but man’s struggle for dignity, searching for and finding real values, as opposed to the random and ephemeral?
In the fragment of a broken pottery jar, Dominic reads the phrase “Ask the daisy” that had been formed by drops of water. The daisy tells him what to do: Find a brick of marble dust, doors made of trees from the Nameless Forest and an eiderdown quilt and send them to the Girl With Closed Eyes to build her Upside Down House; she will tell him how his father can be saved.
And here begins the voyage of overcoming human nature on the level of action, but real on the level of thoughts, feelings and emotions: images, some with surrealistic elements and others with colours and figures in the Renaissance style, which would certainly make a marvellous screen play for a film, in an atmosphere sometimes reminiscent of Spielberg, and at others of Tarkovsky, scenes that follow one upon the other with Dominic as the main character, and with other strange characters, landscapes and situations.
Images and symbols that either help Dominic to achieve his goals uncomplainingly (old lady, spider, earth) or raise hurdles (seabirds – their questions remind us of the “Song of the Dead Brother”, black statues, creatures without shadows, the swamp).
And if the danger in which the plot culminates, contains the seeds of the principle of achieving one’s goal through redemption, I feel that the author at some points could have made the situations more intense. The swamp, for example, symbolically provides the opportunities, through the conditions of the struggle, anxiety and fear of a “terrified hero”, to create tensions, in which the tests are culminating anyway, but without having been completed.
And finally, there are images and symbols of imaginary creatures who, of their own free will, cooperate in finding solutions to Dominic’s dead ends (daisy, star, white statues, etc.). Later comes the unique image with the children of all races, who know everything, and if you ask them in the right way, will reveal their wisdom to you!
In my view, the images of the white statues and the creatures without shadow are the most poetic of all in both concept and description. The poetry lies in the staging of the statue-figures, in their “immobile” mobility, and finally in breathing life and memory which human oblivion or lethe has imprinted on its other self, which remembers, but if the memory is not retrieved, the game at the end would perhaps be definitively lost. Or it lies on the “bright shadows” of the amorphous Furies-type creatures, who test thought and conscience and if they fail, again the cause is lost.
Within the above staging, the elements that provide generative power are: the memory of Dominic’s father; the instances of faint-heartedness, justified in every person, which are conquered by the vision of the goal; faith that the power of Love will ultimately succeed; and hope that, at the last moment, faith in the values that are today being sorely tried on the level of earthly reality and its ideology, such as Health, Peace, Happiness, Creation, Tradition.
Thus the messages about reality which are put forward without a trace of didacticism by means of a spare, meaningful and at the same time poetic style, with their peaks in dreams, magic, and the symbolic element, are: the victory of love and self-sacrifice over fear; that of individual freedom, self-confidence and memory over defeatism; patience over adversity; hope over defeat; simple, critical thought over arrogance; faith over abandonment; and finally love over death.
Reading Dominic, one can see the influence of Michael Ende, which is perfectly legitimate, especially in the field of art, as long as the degree of assimilation and the particularity of the writer can come up with something “new”. I believe that Kondoleon does. Because the particular stylistic and ideological ways in which he assimilates and transforms archetypal symbols, giving them – through mythology, the Greek tradition or history – a modern universal social content, constitute elements that mark a trend toward renewal in children’s and young adults’ literature. For example, the image of the women on the beach looking for familiar objects harks back in theatrical terms to the Chorus of an ancient tragedy, to the timelessness of the Greek woman and her endless or futile wait for her loved ones (family members living abroad, or away at sea)
And if, as Kundera says, the novel concerns man’s potential and that of his world, not in the field of reality but of existence, then Dominic or a voyage into the land of fairy tale and imagination – which could also be a two-way journey on the paths of the subconscious as projection of the field of values of conscious reality, some of which are lost in the maelstrom of everyday life and the modern dead-ends – has “accomplished” its “mission”.
(Magazine Ekpedeftiki Kinotita, No. 22, 1993)
Dominic stood on the roof; it took a few seconds for his eyes to become accustomed to the reddish light that lit up the sky like the glow of a huge forest fire. Suddenly the sky was clear of clouds but the red colour remained.
The wind had grown much stronger. It blew, whistled, roared, and hit Dominic like a burning blast - could it have been from a hot desert somewhere?
The roof wasn’t a big one. It had a wooden floor and there, right in the middle, it had a horizontal slab. A black, stone slab with a prickly surface and rough sides.
With great effort Dominic managed to overcome the resistance of the wind and approach the slab. The black colour attracted his gaze. He kept looking, as though pushing his whole body into a dark room. Light! Where, at long last, could he find the light of an answer? And then, on the surface of the black slab, some letters began to take shape. They were all gold and all mixed up. The M was beside the R, the F beside the O, further away was the A, then the E, somewhere else the L. Dominic looked. So many letters. How could he choose the ones that would form an answer?
And then the wind died down. A light sea breeze came up – what beach had it come from? Then Dominic knelt down beside the slab, took the other daisy petal out of his pocket and let it fall on the stone surface. The breeze started moving it around, sending it from one letter to the other and Dominic made a mental note of the order in which the letters were now arranged:
So that was it! Dominic got up and the gold letters vanished. Only the white daisy petal remained – now motionless – on the black slab. And Dominic ran toward the stairway, and began running down hurriedly.
“Ask the children in the right way!” he murmured, as he ran down the steps two at a time.
Of course, the children know; as long as you ask them in the right way, they will reveal their wisdom to you.
You have to talk to children in stories.
Dominic was sitting on the wooden floor of the veranda on the first floor when he started telling his story. Little children tentatively began poking their heads around the balcony doors and listening to him as he related his story:
“That morning – it must have been spring – the sun came out, as always, from behind the highest ...” Two girls and a boy approached him, sat down beside him, looked at him and listened.
“Meanwhile, the father had gone to the middle of the field in front of the house...” Now there were twenty children sitting around Dominic: nine with white faces, two with brown, six with black, three with yellow. They looked at him; they listened.
“In the palm of his hand, he held the last piece. It had a strange shape. It looked like a star ... Here, this is it!” Dominic took the clay star out of his pocket and showed it to the children, There were fifty children sitting around him – thirty-three girls, sixteen boys. They were looking at him; they were listening. And Dominic told them the story of his life.
Around him on the floor of the veranda, more and more children gathered. The veranda was full. And all the children were listening. They looked at him, they kept silent; they understood.
“And the white daisy petal showed the letters in order. First the A then the S then the K... ‘Ask the children the right way’ I read. Dominic stood up, and the children looked at him. “Have I asked you in the right way now?” asked Dominic. How light he felt! And how good it was to share your life with others!
The children nodded their heads, gesturing “yes”. And then all together in one voice, they answered him.
“The Nameless Forest is there...” and they all raised their arms to indicate the west. “That’s where the Lady with the Beaded Hair Who Speaks in Rhymes lives. When you find her, she’ll show you the doors made of trees from the Nameless Forest.”
“How far is it from here?” asked Dominic.
The children paused.
“We have heard some people say it’s two hours from here; others say two days. And still others two years. We don’t know.”
Dominic smiled. He got the point.
“Each person,” he said, “knows his own way.”
The children looked at him with admiration. A little black boy touched his arm. “You should know,” he said, “that when you get to where you’re going, you will no longer be the person you were when you started. You’ll be someone else.”
“You won’t be anyone else. You’ll be the same, but different, too!” added a dark-skinned girl.
“In what way?” Dominic wanted to know.
And the children, all together, told him:
“Then we’ll be calling you ‘Dominic the Great’. That’s what we’d think of you!”
Dominic’s eyes filled with tears. Emotion, sorrow or happiness?
He waved his hand over the children’s heads.
Then he went down the stairs, walked on the red earth and looked westward... The red colour of the sky kept changing, going from deep cherry red to dark purple, then black. Dominic walked. In his fist was the clay star lighting his way.