‘Poena Damni – Z213: Exit’ by Dimitris Lyacos (Review)

This year has already seen a couple of works of poetry covered on the blog, but today’s book is something a little different.  It’s the first part of a trilogy that I was kindly sent by Shoestring Press, and while there’s definitely a poetic feel to it in places, it’s one of those books that defies simple categorisation.  This is a little something for those who like to be challenged in their reading, and aren’t too concerned about not getting everything first time around – so now that I’ve got your attention…

Z213: Exit (translated by Shorsha Sullivan), the first installment of Greek writer Dimitris Lyacos’ Poena Damni trilogy, is not the easiest book to describe.  A blend of confusing, disorienting prose passages and poetic sections with words scattered across the page, it appears to tell the story of a man escaping from some sort of prison or camp.  Having made it out, he gets on a train heading off into the distance – whether he ever actually leaves it is a matter for speculation.

The scenes on the train are interspersed with other stories and viewpoints.  Several parts involve a man’s sexual encounters with a woman, while others seem to have him (or someone else?) wandering through tunnels, possibly revisiting the place he escaped from.  Then there are the more abstract sections, where the reader simply grabs hold of any stray passing word and hopes it will lead them in the direction of any meaning.  It usually does, but it’s rarely what you were expecting…

Z213: Exit is a book it’s extremely difficult to get a handle on.  The usual helpful hints of places, times and names are almost entirely absent, leaving the reader to grope in the dark for the few details that make their way onto the page.  We sense that it takes place in a war-torn region, with mentions of soldiers and the likelihood of the place the protagonist escapes from being some kind of POW camp.  Later, the man expresses his fear, occupied with fleeing from unknown, unseen pursuers, all of which happens in (literal and metaphorical) darkness.

The train journey, which extends throughout the book, is an important insight into the nature of the work, and one of the more concrete elements among the disjointed thoughts and memories.  At times the man moves around, eating and talking with other passengers, while at others he finds himself alone, watching the outside world pass by the train windows and wondering where he might end up:

And the road opens, as we approach the road opens up a new road, for us not to be forced to a stop, a door is constantly opening in front of us.  We shall never find it in front of us closed, shall never stop, never knock, no one will open for us.  We shall never take hold of the skein uncoiling.  It will coil and uncoil its edges before us, we will keep seeing it, a dark sign far away.  Noiselessly, or traveling with the train of this noise.  That pulls you or pushes, you move but stay still there.
p.111 (Shoestring Press, 2016)

It’s difficult to avoid reading all this as an allegory of sorts, and the man’s life on the train could easily be seen as a kind of purgatory, a journey unlikely to end any time soon.

This idea might be along the right lines as there are a number of Biblical undertones in Z213: Exit, not least of which is the Bible the man carries around and scribbles notes in, adding his thoughts to God’s words.  A more religious reader than myself will undoubtedly have great pleasure in picking out allusions and Bible verses, but most of this went over my head (although I did spot the references to the parting of the Red Sea…).

Of course, it’s the title of the trilogy itself that provides us with the largest hint of a religious connection.  When I offered Google Translate the opportunity to enlighten me, the trusty AI came up with ‘indemnity’, which seemed a rather strange interpretation, and trying the words separately brought up ‘penalty’ and ‘loss’, which left me none the wiser.  A wider web search, however, quickly reveals the religious nature of the phrase, as it actually translates to ‘the punishment of loss’, or an eternity without God’s love (a fate worse than death for true believers) – perhaps, then, our friend really is lost in the dark, deprived of God’s light.  I’m still a little unclear as to quite how it all fits in (but this was a useful reminder not to believe everything Google Translate tells me…).

Even if the meaning behind the text can be elusive, Lyacos’ work is still an enjoyable, if taxing, read.  The main feature is the mix of writing styles and genres, with the dense prose passages, switching between You and I protagonists and often missing words, deliberately fragmented and jarring:

                                                                                                                        these names and
that’s how they found me.  And as soon as they brought me I stayed for a while and then they took me it was a building of four wards large yards and rooms the rest of the people were there four wards separate not far from the sea.  And we would eat together sometimes and in the middle a log with cut branches on top over it an opening for the smoke, and ashes spread out on the floor black stains and ashes.

These sections share an uneasy coexistence with the more poetic passages, which consist of words floating around the page in different fonts, representing the original Bible passages and the protagonist’s additions.  All of this makes it hard to settle into a rhythm, meaning you’ll have to put in an effort to stick to your task.

However, while Z213: Exit is definitely hard-going, it’s nevertheless absorbing and enjoyable, even if one read is nowhere near enough to unlock its mysteries.  The aim of the book, and who and what it’s about, may be unclear, but there’s enough to enjoy in the puzzles and the writing to make me want to revisit it.  I suspect that the rest of the trilogy might shed more light on what Lyacos’ intentions are, but that will have to wait for another day – this isn’t a work to be rushed…

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