‘Poena Damni – With the People from the Bridge’ By Dimitris Lyacos (Review)

Regular readers may remember that one of my June reviews looked at an intriguing genre-hopping work, namely Z213: Exit, the first part of Greek writer Dimitris Lyacos’ Poena Damni trilogy.  Well, today’s review picks up where that one left off as we continue on the nameless protagonist’s journey through an eerie run-down landscape.  This one is a shorter book than the previous instalment, but be warned – it’s certainly not any less bewildering…

With the People from the Bridge (translated by Shorsha Sullivan, review copy courtesy of Shoestring Press) continues, in a fashion, where Z213: Exit left off, with our nameless protagonist having presumably ended his lengthy train journey.  However, on arriving, his destination turns out to be rather uninviting:

Night had already fallen when I crossed to the other side of the station and came out on to the road.  It was still raining, a little.  I would find them in one of the arches under the bridge, as he had told me.  I would see light.  I arrived outside, I waited.  We waited.  They opened.  We entered.
p.11 (Shoestring Press, 2018)

Once inside, with the occasional rumble of trains overhead, he sits himself down among a small group of people in the darkness, waiting for something to happen…

…which turns out to be a performance of sorts.  First, a male ‘narrator’ starts off with a bible reading, before another man, whom the protagonist dubs LG, begins a confessional monologue concerning a woman buried beneath the ground, describing his frequent attempts to check on her well-being.  All well and good, but it’s when the woman herself, known only as NCTV, chimes in that matters really start to become confusing.  Who is she?  What is her relationship with LG?  And, most importantly, is she even alive?

With the People from the Bridge is far shorter than its predecessor, only running to around forty typed pages (with each faced by a blank page), and in some ways it’s a far smoother experience.  The central structure of the protagonist’s arrival under the bridge and the performance he observes is fairly straight-forward, and by contrast with Z213: Exit, which almost demands that you take your time, this part would probably be a one-sitting read for most.  However, that’s not to say that it’s an easy read.  Like the first part of the story, the book often leaves the reader (and the protagonist himself) in the dark, with the almost complete absence of reference points such as names, times and places creating a vacuum for our imagination to play in.

One of the main elements of With the People from the Bridge is the performance.  Where Z213: Exit was a mix of poetry and fragmented prose, this one feels more like drama, with the protagonist effectively present at the performance of a compelling play in the darkness of the tunnel under the bridge.  The experience is enhanced by the chants of the narrator and a chorus of women linking the sections together.  Even the comments between the speeches, taking us back to the protagonist, appear to be used as stage directions.  Throw in the use of several ‘props’ (a TV, an old car, a cassette recorder), and the scene is set for an impressive drama.

The story described in the play is compelling in itself, with its setting in an eerie place of darkness.  There’s a sense that we’re trapped inside a building, possibly hiding from someone.  There’s mention of others coming in and out, checking on the woman by uncovering her, while in the outside world, there are hints of people seeking the protagonists out, and getting ever closer.

The core of the story comes from LG and NCTV, with their differing viewpoints told in a number of ways.  While the man usually sticks to reading from his notes, the voice of the woman can appear from several directions: on a recording, from the car and often on the TV screen.  The two voices are closely connected and at one point even overlap:

Their voices alternating, and for a while one overlaying the other each in turn
     She was face down inside.  Why
     Now I remember.  Same every time
     The body in two, the light on her belly
     Same bed. Same room
     No nails.  One hand.  On the other
     Helped me to turn over.  Cleaned me
     Yes.  New skin on the other. (p.43)

Towards the end of the piece, both disappear inside the car, which comes to represent the hiding place described in their story.

With the People from the Bridge is an impressive, powerful work that seems to be defying the reader to uncover its secrets.  The central idea of a man hiding a woman from danger and constantly checking on her to reassure himself that she’s alright initially suggested a war-time setting (an idea that also came up during Z213: Exit). The truth, though (if there is one), is rather different, as a quick look at the book’s (surprisingly in-depth) Wikipedia page shows – it appears that there’s a rather darker background to the story.  In truth, I suspect it’s almost better not to know too much about this backstory.  By withholding information, Lyacos’ and Sullivan’s text, sparse and menacing, challenges the reader to create their own story, and the book is all the better for it.

The second part of the trilogy makes for another intriguing reading experience, a book that would certainly stand up to a reread.  Better yet, this is a story that would probably be best enjoyed on the stage, as its multimedia approach and the contrast between the story being told and the eerie setting of its telling seem made for a live performance.  In any case, having made it through the second of our three ‘punishments’, I’m looking forward to seeing what Lyacos has in store for us in the final instalment of the trilogy.  I do wonder how the last part will connect with the first two, and whether it can measure up to its impressive predecessors.

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