» Book Review
Melting Among Echoes: The Elusive Narrative Voice of Z213: Exit
Z213: Exit (Poena Damni trilogy) by Dimitris Lyacos
Translated by Shorsha Sullivan
Shoestring Press, 2017
Paperback, 152 pages, $12.00
Please note: the entire trilogy has been re-released by Shoestring Press as a boxed set as of October 2018.
Z213: Exit—the first installment of Dimitris Lyacos’ Poena Damni trilogy—eludes a straightforward interpretation and defies easy genre categorization. One of the most striking features of the text, which offers an admixture of poetry, prose, and fractured discourse, is the varied, evanescent nature of the work’s narrative voice. It is at once discretely anonymous and richly polyphonous—a voice that is both an echo of a dying oral tradition and a singular windswept report from future underworlds, or perhaps contemporary nightmares. A voice that wanders a crumbling cerebral maze of déjà vu as it grapples with bouts of pre-cognitive amnesia. This narrative ambiguity, elliptical and serpentine, allows for a wealth of themes and mytho-religious motifs to surface in the text, such as the mercurial relationship between memory and nominal identity and the symbolic resonance between Greek myth, Christianity, and European folklore.
The fragmented, wandering narrator of Z213: Exit and the dislocated world (suffused with a sense of impending dread) in which they exist is prominent in the work’s first line: “these names and that’s how they found me.” Immediately, we get the sense that either a bureaucratic body, or perhaps an entity, is cataloguing and in pursuit of some targeted group of people. But the list of names—the “they” —and the “me” never come into focus, and so the narrative trope that we are teased with in the first line—one of straightforward persecution and pursuit—never quite coalesces into a recognizable shape. Instead, over the course of 152 pages, the narrator—the at-first unidentifiable “me”—slides between sensation and memory as it struggles to individuate from the host of shadowy presences that surround it and to identify the pain, suffering, and mystery that the environment itself seems to breathe forth. For example, later in the text, as the narrator (who at this point we can deem an anatomical male) engages in a fleeting sexual encounter, which seems to be more discomfiting than pleasurable, he muses, “Where did I come from? My name? Where was I heading?” Here, the somatic pressure of an erotic experience in a darkened world evokes sharp questions of origin, identity, and purpose. However, as we move toward the conclusion, the narrator seems to find a paradoxical certainty in letting all his questions dissolve into the prevailing sense of ambiguity and in doing so, he offers a contradictory assessment of the circumstances implied in Z213: Exit’s first line: “Nobody is coming after me. Surely they have forgotten about me. Nobody will ever come here to find me. Nobody ever.”
As the fragmented narrator of Z213: Exit quests through his broken world in something of an atemporal haze, echoes of Dante, Beckett, and even Proust can be detected in Lyacos’ careful and subtly erudite writing. But we also find rich allusions to ancient Greek myth and Christian ritual, which primarily enter the text through a Bible that the narrator finds in the pocket of a jacket, which he has taken from a partially conscious solider. The Bible proves to be a palimpsest containing erasure marks, blank space among biblical verses, “the words of a stranger,” and the writing of the narrator (perhaps they are all actually the words of the same person), who states “I walk through other names” before he briefly describes the Bible’s contents. In this book within a book, truncated excerpts from the Old and New Testaments float next to fragments from ancient Greek sources and original, darkly lyrical imagery. It is within this intertextual Bible that we encounter Z213: Exit’s most phantasmagoric layer, which Lyacos weaves in a rhythmic, episodic manner through the body of the text. Here we find scenes where Christ’s harrowing of Hell merges with Odysseus’ suffering-rich nostos; the mortification of Christ’s body upon the cross fades into the image of Dionysian sparagmos (or ritual tearing asunder); and the ritual of the mass and the ritual animal slaughter central to the ancient Greek sacrificial rite carry the same numinous weight.
A central motif of With the People from the Bridge, the second installment of the Poena Damni trilogy, is the revenant of European folklore. The revenant, which is somewhat akin to the zombie and the vampire, is a reanimated corpse or a revivified spirit who stalks in terror the living. The shadowed presence of a revenant also appears to be active in the text of Z:213 Exit. There are moments when the narrative seems to emanate from the twilit consciousness of a revenant, such as when the multi-voiced wanderer and narrator declares, “You are somebody else, but you are the same, you are him. This is continuity, you travel…” This lends a profound sense of liminality to the text. The reader is not only betwixt and between the pursuer and the pursued, but also the material and the immaterial, the pulse of life and the cold of death. There are also times when the narrator seems to be haunted by a revenant for dimly perceived reasons with the pursuit itself following a non-linear dream-logic. This is most vividly seen on the text’s final page, which we are led to believe is a page from the multi-voiced Bible that the narrator carries with him: “get away always, but feel he is coming, as time goes by he is approaching, and still now that the distance increases, and now that you draw away still the distance decreases.”
In noting the spectral influence of the revenant, we are brought back to the polyphonous narrative voice of Z213: Exit. As mentioned above, the page that ends the text is taken from the Bible that the narrator carries, but we are not told if the writing is that of the narrator, the words of a stranger, or even of someone else. Any hope for a unified voice or an integrated protagonist dissolves into uncertainty. What Z213: Exit leaves us with is something of a snapshot from the collective unconscious. An unmoored myth of wandering and suffering as likely to be plucked from the pages of the Western canon as from the dreams and nightmares of strangers in the contemporary world.