Reviewed by Philip Elliott
by Dimitris Lyacos
Second Revised Edition
$12.00, 19 Devonshire Avenue, Beeston Nottingham
NG9 1BS, UK, Pg. 152, ISBN: 9781910323625
The book begins “these names and that’s how they found me” and immediately we are thrown into a Dante-esque nightmarish odyssey through a ravaged and desperate landscape as a nameless protagonist flees some terrible place of confinement, perhaps a prison, perhaps something else entirely. Always on the move, navigating an alien, apocalyptic landscape, confronting terrible sights along the way, starving people, children setting fire to things, our protagonist is always searching and never finding; everything is always ahead, never reached. Always there are more horrors to witness. This story is told as a series of fragmented notes, possibly in some kind of diary, in two ways: through prose fragments and passages of poetry.
In many ways Z213: EXIT brings to mind a dreamlike postmodern version of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, but it is far more than this, and it is much more than simply postmodern. Allusion and similarities to other works of literature are endless: Eliot, Homer, the Bible, Kafka, even an almost Waiting for Godot understated indecipherable desperation in the protagonist as he flees these terrible events:
And many were falling into the sea or stumbling and the rest trampling on them. And I wore the cross like he had told me and passed by the side of the tower and came out on the road for the station. From there you could leave. If I could take a train from there. But I sat down then to recover for I was in pain.
There is a Joycean kind of delirious complexity to all the references and allegories, and yet, what sets Z213: EXIT apart from postmodernism is its reluctance to mock these works, or imitate them. They exist on the periphery only, just like the protagonist.
As an Ancient Classics graduate, there was a lot here for me to chew on, such as the sense of deep tragedy, but Lyacos isn’t at all presenting us with tragedy as we have come to know it. Yet the feeling of it remains. Its presence in the background is subtle but very much there. There is as much Christianity in here as there is Ancient Greece. In fact, maybe more. The protagonist carries with him a Bible filled with notes, for example, and there are frequent references to crosses and a lamb:
Every so often they would fill up, once they washed the eyes of the cross of the lamb that was looking around. Fumbling its body and singing. Look at the holes in his palms. Nail your finger inside, call out the blood, they were singing. And something like: the crosses, the crosses, let them go deep. With rhythms that made you dizzy again, in the slow whirl of the light growing stronger, in the carriage spinning around you.
Notable here, too, is the sheer beauty and musicality of the language. I have not read the original but I feel as if Shorsha Sullivan has done a masterful job in translating. The words positively sing off the page. Some lines are so beautiful and so absolutely perfect as they are, in English, I cannot imagine them any other way, such as “First light that opens your lungs all around and above and from here onwards the strong smell of the landscape goes with you all along” and “Hear like a river flowing somewhere around”, and I wonder how much credit goes to Lyacos here and how much to Sullivan. The style of the language in the prose sections is most reminiscent of a fragmented version of McCarthy’s hyper-lucid, hallucinogenic prose in Blood Meridian. That shockingly vivid imagery is there also, but there is so much more to Z213: EXIT. Never has so small a book seemed so infinite.
Constantly throughout the text, an atmospheric surrealism suddenly morphs into cold reality dreams turned awakenings, plunging us into the hard and bare ‘realness’ of the world around us along with our protagonist: And then the illusion dries up and it is an empty uninhabited house. The book is rife with double meanings, too, with a binary structure used to frame things. There is the prose and the poetry, the fleeing and the journeying towards, the past and the present, postmodernism and modernism. Even in the physical formatting of the book there is duality, text exists only on every second page, sitting opposite a blank white one, and the fonts of the prose and poetry sections differ. The inherent conflict at the centre of the protagonist, of existence itself is magnified and endlessly despaired.
Such despair is at the centre of Z213: EXIT, because, ultimately, this book is a song of suffering, an exploration of the extremes of human endurance, physical, mental, and spiritual. ‘Poena Damni’ as the title of the trilogy is a reference to the worst trials a soul would undertake in hell, becoming blind to the presence of God. It is tempting, then, to view this journey undertaken by the protagonist in the book as a journey away from God, rather than toward. Perhaps it is God that the protagonist so desperately flees. Although this is, of course, like every other interpretation one might make, much too concrete an assertion for a work such as this.
Dimitris Lyacos’ Z213: EXIT is a revelation. A masterpiece. Distinctly postmodern yet entirely unclassifiable, it is everything and nothing all at once. Despite the myriad references to literature, it is entirely new – I have never read anything like it, and this stunning translation is truly head-spinning. I will be purchasing and poring many hours into the other two installments, and I cannot recommend enough that you do the same.
About the reviewer: Philip Elliott was born in Dublin. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of Into The Void Magazine, and his own writing can be found in various journals in 9 countries, such as Otoliths, Scarlet Leaf Review, Foliate Oak, Flash Fiction Magazine and Revista Literariedad.