Poena Damni Z213: Exit by Dimitris Lyacos Gets Worthy Translation from Shorsha Sullivan

The most challenging part about being a brilliant writer in a foreign country is that it can often take years for one’s work to at last be acknowledged on an international level as a result of waiting for a just and accurate English translation. It happened with Patrick Modiano (who didn’t get his due English adaptation until winning the Nobel Prize in 2014) and Elena Ferrante (occasionally rumored to be a translator herself by the name of Anita Raja), and, formerly, Dimitris Lyacos. Now, with a translation by Shorsha Sullivan of the first book in the Poena Damni series, Z213: Exit, the world outside of Europe can get better acquainted.

Focused on a nameless narrator who has recently broken out or been freed from some type of detention center (whether this is a prison, mental facility or otherwise is never fully made clear), Z213: Exit is oftentimes that beautiful interweaving of poetry and prose. Considering Lyacos’ background in Ancient Greek philosophy and Wittgenstein, it’s no wonder things can get more than a little metaphysical throughout the dystopian-feeling tale.

Beginning in medias res, Lyacos instantly captivates his audience by means of intrigue and building a sort of unsolvable lore around his character. Though we never know who the ominous “they” is that holds our narrator in captivity, he gives us as many details as he can, explaining, “And as soon as they brought me I stayed for a while and then they took me it was a building of four wards separate not far from the sea.” As he makes his way through the outside world, his only method of piecing together the mysteries of his past (and present) is to write it down in the journal we’re currently reading. The undertones of religion quickly become overtones as he makes mention of “something hard, the little Bible in the pocket.” Then, of course, there is the ongoing imagery of the lamb throughout, a frequent symbol in the bible. “Wine again. 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.” The anthropomorphism lent to the lamb is just one of the many devices used by Lyacos to heighten the intensity of the surrealism–and, through this surrealism, the author undercuts the point that the most dreamlike occurrences are often the realest. This is the case when the narrator describes most of the events that happen to him, as well as the phantom-esque people he encounters, as it is when he describes, “And then the illusion dries up and it is an empty uninhabited house. The icons behind the colour that changes, same shape, same face painted again all around. And there, in the corner, the body demolished, like metal plates inside it, until dark falls completely, leaning out from the last fading saint, his face pressing lips tight.”

The rich tapestry of detail sustained throughout Poena Damni Z213: Exit is, in part, what brings to life so distinctly a Kafkaesque hellscape. Indeed, even in the inflection imagined through a syntactical structure that is rife with double meanings of oppression and hopelessness, we feel connected to this narrator we know so little about–whose background we never gain a clear picture of. He recounts a Sisyphean ordeal that pertains to the aforementioned syntax by noting in a rote journal entry form style, “As you know the earth beneath you is pushing you forward. The wheel pushes it and, in its turn, it pushes it forward. If it were to yield a little we would be going down inside it. Perhaps we are heading somewhere in order to go down. Perhaps when we get there, on the horizon, this surface won’t be so hard after all. We are heading there all together, with the train shifting the light and playing with it, the light shifting and playing over a thing that is stealing away. That changes form, a surface in motion.”

This notion of something unreachable–whether satisfaction or a basic human need–is also a constant in Poena Damni Z213: Exit. Striving and striving, our narrator is met with endless hurdles to keep him from his most minuscule of goals. In this regard, there are The Inferno and Book of Job parallels to the tale as well.

By the end of the book, the narrator has seemed to become so disjointed from himself and reality that he begins using the second person to indicate his thought process, as though trying his best to make his reader understand his motives in defeat.

A truly unmatched piece of prose in content and style, Poena Damni Z:213 Exit might be short in size, but burgeoning in complexity.

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