In Dimitris Lyacos's Z213: EXIT, nothing is permanent. A man with a red stain under his nose appears, disappears, reappears. Text is discovered, written, erased, rewritten, lost again. Dead friends are remembered, lovers are disappointed, bodies taken down to the sea.
Z213:EXIT is the first book in Lyacos's Poena Damni trilogy. Along with its companions, With The People from the Bridge and The First Death, it has been translated into more than six languages. Is it prose? Is it poetry? Whatever it is, it is thoroughly bleak, offering up only small bitter doses of beauty amidst the ashes, blood and rubble. Twenty years in the making, bits and pieces of the trilogy have appeared in publications around the world and inspired a slew of artistic responses.
The book begins with the narrator in detention, a place of wards and yards and cells stained with ash. Our nameless protagonist's experience is chronicled in an anxious stream of consciousness. From fragments strung one after the other, we are introduced to a world where people are taken and become bodies to dispose of, a world that is willing to look the other way:
"And they would lower them down into the pit. This is what comes to my mind most of the time. And to hear them cry as far as the last houses of the town where the wall was and everybody understood. And some used to get close to the pits and go back again and it wasn't a secret it was under our feet but nobody. A whole town just about."
Fractured syntax and scattered images – many of them reappearing in different forms throughout the book – effectively render the pared-down paranoia of an escapee on the run. Matchfire, offering nothing more than quick glimpses of truth, lights the way. From page to page, the interplay of dark and light, truth and illusion, shade and clarity shape the narrator's journey through a "shattered" and "acid" world, through ruined towns and dark crowded rooms and labyrinthine tunnels.
Lyacos shuttles the reader from the large-scale trauma of social collapse to the devastatingly intimate at dizzying speeds. Early in the book the narrator ponders tenderly a very personal death: "Did someone bend over, hear you while still you were heard, your eyes that were gleaming, eyes growing dim, pain growing dim, with how many more did they bring you, the bell, silence as they lowered you down" then panning out to take a sober account of the aftermath of loss from a distance: "The town mute as before, with some wine on the end of a table, the Bible being erased, between its pages the words of a stranger, among his pieces I write wherever I find a no-man's land."
The narrator's perspective often manifests in dense blocks of text, though things loosen up a little bit in the middle of the book. These passages are shot through with bits and pieces of ancient Greek texts and the Old and New Testaments, whose free-floating arrangement on the page offer some airy relief from the narrator's concentrated strife.
As the narrator moves from nightmare to hallucination to memory to bleak reality, we get glimpses of what's behind him: "Perhaps just one. One is like all of them together. Same eyes that search, same mind that calculates the next move. Same legs that run same arms that spread wide. Ears straining to listen, nostrils over their prey. Always acted like that. Two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, two arms, two legs. The symmetry of the machine that pursues you."
That machine pursues the protagonist, and the reader, through a world that offers little in the way of comfort or attainable truth. Z213:EXIT is haunted, and the themes that populate it seem particularly relevant to me as a reader in today's America: "truth" discovered and lost and written and rewritten, the specter of human beings rounded up and disposed of, the "same eyes that search, same mind that calculates" always there, always watching. I recommend it for anyone who wishes to trade, even if for only one afternoon, one nightmare for another, more lovingly rendered one.
Z213:EXIT, Second Revised Edition
Publisher: Shoestring Press, October 2016
Translator: Shorsha Sullivan