Review by Ilias Bistolas
Series: Poena Damni vol. 1
Paperback: 152 pages
Publisher: Shoestring Press; 2nd Revised edition (October 18, 2016)
As long as a match stays alight. As much as you have time to see in the room that flares and fizzles out. The images holding, briefly, then fall. Some lines you manage, they are gone, another match, again. Pieces missing, empty pages, match, again. An alien sentence comes and sticks in your mind.
Z213: EXIT p. 23
Reading Z213: EXIT by Dimitris Lyacos you feel like the book’s anonymous narrator. Every page of the volume is a flaring match and for as long as it lasts it reveals before your eyes a fragment of hell. There are no cast-out angels here, rivers of blood and lava, lashes and cauldrons. Lyacos’ hell is a valley of transmutations right to the point where the match has gone out and identity, memory and existence are lost. The soul’s bone has broken and circulates like a clot in the body, the body nevertheless remaining unchanged. We are many souls inside one and only leathern bag: was this not, among others, the “lesson” we learned from tragedy? If, however, ancient tragedy shows us that the body pays with its disintegration for the emergence of personality and its right to pursue desire, the contemporary tragedy that Lyacos portrays reveals to us a human subject that can no longer focus on its centre of gravity. How many different winds blow inside Aeolus’ goatskin? The protagonist of Z213: EXIT appears not to recognize his own voice. He does not remember where he is coming from, where he is going and his name is hidden under a series of names.
Make a point of remembering to write as much as I can. As much as I remember. In order for me to remember. As I keep writing I go into it again. Afterwards it is as if it were not I. How do I know that I have written this. Faded, someone else’s words. My own handwriting though. From a void I wake up within, time after time.
Z213: EXIT p. 61
Z213: EXIT is, as far as narrative order is concerned, the first part of Poena Damni. It was not the first of the three to be published, however, and it has been revised for the present edition (Shoestring Press, 2016). The second part is With the People from the Bridge (again a re–working of a text that had been previously published under the title Nyctivoe), while the place of epilogue is taken by The First Death (Shoestring Press, 2000) which was the first of the three works to have been published. The intricate publication history shows that the overall work follows an non-linear development. There are different characters present in each book, a general impression is given, however, that an overarching narrator is in control of the story. The protagonist of Z213: EXIT may differ from the suffering man of The First Death, yet there is a consistency in scope, a relentless effort to face “The Real”, which forms an inextricable bond between the three texts. From a narratological perspective, while different characters come and go, a Narrator seems to be there at all times and there is an impression of “unity in difference”. Many voices, one underlying tone, one – fragmented – Logos.
A third person account introduces the character in The First Death:
[…] body swept here and there on the rock like seaweed or a lifeless tentacle, fruit of a womb ship-wrecked by the winds, ensanguined and flesh-filled mire. The left arm cut short, the right to the end of the forearm, a rotted stick raving amid the water’s lungs.
The First Death p. 9
In Z213: EXIT, however, only first person accounts are involved. The Narrator seems like a confused man, at least on a surface level: he does not know who he really is or where he is going; the trilogy makes use of different genres in each individual volume – a fragmented kind of prose in Z213: EXIT, a sequence of theatre monologues interrupted by stage-like descriptions in With the People from the Bridge, and, finally, a dense poetic idiom in The First Death. As the story unfolds the Narrator reads the notes of others inside his own diary, he does not recognise his writing, he is stranded on an unknown island; he speaks through so many voices that you wonder in the end if he is one or many. His agony is “the infectious agony of butchered machines” (The First Death p.29). This fragmentation of the subject which leaves the protagonist of The First Death mutilated and abandoned on an island, as if he were the ruin of a text erratically washed up on a page, builds up an inescapable angst. We cannot but remember Karl Jaspers, in his analysis of the tragic phenomenon, who mentions “the shipwreck” as “a boundary of the human process”. In Lyacos the traditional opposing values that set in motion the tragic fall do not stand against each other, yet, there is a collision of a different order which has the form of a powerful wind chiseling a rock. Lyacos’ writing, is a sequence of variations describing the gradual history of an archetypal fall: an ancient “Homeric hero” becomes a wreck of a subject, an artificial, discontinuous and light-weight ego. The textual development leading up to this is full of tensions, codified, hyper-mythical (in the sense that it exhibits a revelatory power that divests itself of symbolism), showing “forms in themselves” and leading up to ritual practice. At the end of |Z213: EXIT the Narrator takes part in the slaughter of a lamb. The festival of Easter comes to mind, as well as the Exodus of the Israelites:
He was the one who had filled it from the lamb’s blood, in the beginning had first let it run, a basin then underneath when the pressure eased off, in the end what was left, back into the pit which blackened and drank.
Z213: EXIT p. 143
The likeness with Nekyia – Odysseus filling a pit with black blood from the throats of the sheep so that the ghosts in Hades gather about him – is obvious. In Poena Damni, nevertheless, myth should not be taken to refer to an intertextual or structuralist background, a secret blood ritual common to all the stories. The revelation here relates to the brutality of the image and its projection through a fetishism of the object-word. Blood. Pressure. Blackening. Myth, in Lyacos, does not present itself as an organic whole upon which his writing is articulated: Z213: EXIT is not a new reading of the myth of Odysseus or Moses. Lyacos does not construct a new myth either. What he does is to turn the myth inwards, towards its deep structure, emphasizing its basic constituents without the intervention of a constructed plot. The words of the trilogy are the fragments of the echo of a primordial explosion, which, if you fit them together, compose the innermost name of tragedy; Sacrifice. Altar. Sacrifice. Odysseus. Sulphur. Dredger pain. Angst and guilt. Poena Damni is the name given to the pain of loss, the pain of the damned, those who have been sentenced to Hell, the utmost emptiness of their feeling, the realization that they will never again feel the warm touch of God. This is the ontology of the tragic phenomenon: vast separation from the light that would lead us back home. And here, a notion of some present-day sublime can be foregrounded: The subject cracks before the impermeability of language and ends up shattered on its walls. The Narrator’s multiple transformations of speech in Poena Damni, his inability to feel a little warmth, his angst and despair, are the result of the mass of the sublime which is behind the “curtain” and pins us down with its weight.
In conclusion, Poena Damni is a post-tragic work. Certainly, it does not follow from tragedy, if tragedy is intended as an ensemble of formal characteristics, but unequivocally describes the tortured and tragic fall of the (post)modern subject: A person made of one thousand screams whose core of being has broken apart and is spread out like an archipelago of anonymous islands on a vast empty surface.
Ilias Bistolas was born in Athens. He specializes in theatre and literature criticism and is a regular reviewer for a number of Greek magazines.
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