Poena Damni: Z213: Exit by Dimitris Lyacos

Shoestring Press, 2010
Z213: Exit is the third installment in the “Poena Damni” trilogy by the Greek writer Dimitris Lyacos.  “Poena Damni” means the pain of loss, and refers to the severest pain felt by the souls of the damned in Hell - the loss of God.

Any reference to trilogies and Hell will immediately bring to mind Dante’s Inferno to anyone who made it through high school.  But the structured lines of terza rima, the helpful guide through the underworld, the cast of characters with speeches explaining their predicament are all absent.  If the Inferno were only Dante’s strange dreamlike lapses between episodes, it would be closer to Z213.  In fact, Z213 takes leave of many of the usual tools one finds in narratives.  The book reads like short, cryptic journal entries by an escapee who is on the lam and has forsworn standard grammar. 

In the beginning, the speaker escapes from some type of imprisonment consisting of wards, personnel and people being inexplicably taken away to be thrown into pits.  The mysteriousness and opaqueness of the story lends itself well to projections and associations.  The prisonlike setting renders up concentration camps, penal colonies, slave populations and post-apocalyptic visions.  Our hero could be an escaped slave, criminal, a trespasser, a minority, or some kind of rebel.  Though the trilogy’s name places these characters in Hell, at times the book reads more like a deep level of purgatory.  We don’t know where the speaker is going, but along the way he meets Christians, receives food and shelter, and even has a vision akin to Jacob’s Ladder.  Possibly, these are part of the speaker’s dreams, or memories of his previous life:

“You wake up so many times, so often, you don’t know when you are asleep and when you are awake . . . different things you remember in dream, as you live in the dream, remember who you are what you did, you may not be who you were when you wake up, but you don’t doubt who you are in the dream, even when you are changing and you are changing continuously . . . “

When not providing the reader with mystifying dreams and poetic diversion, Lyacos offers up a vision of agony more terrifying than any fire and brimstone sermon.  Z213 is almost the opposite of a gospel account.  The gospel accounts are highly specific.  The authors want their recordings to be remembered and passed on.  We know the days, the time, the regions, the names of people and the names of their brothers, fathers, homes, as well.  Z213 is devoid of names and devoid of identities and companionship.  The speaker experiences sexual desire as an animal that “scratches inside and wants to get out.”  There is a “he” that has in the past counseled the speaker, but the speaker's feelings about this person are unclear.

As for the title, one could puzzle forever over the meaning of Z213: Exit.  Is it making reference to Sartre’s No Exit, another tale set in Hell?  In one passage, the time of departure is stated as “two thirteen.”  That same passage makes reference to Moses and Ulysses, two fellow wanderers. Matthew 2:13 refers to the angel’s appearance to Joseph and Mary telling them to flee to Egypt to avoid Herod, who was searching for their child in order to kill him.  213 BCE is the year the Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered mass book burning in China and the execution of dissenting scholars.  One section of the story refers to the Peregrini Dedicitii, foreigners under Roman rule who did not have the rights of Roman citizens.  Is it a coincidence that in 212, the Emperor Caracalla granted Roman citizenship to all freemen in the Roman Empire, but that the grant did not apply to this group?  Whatever it means, it connotes exile, banishment, loss, degradation, hatred, rejection, ignorance, subjugation and absurdity.  In other words, Hell. 

In one particularly mournful passage, Lyacos puts the protagonist’s predicament in the bleakest of terms:

“of the freedom which will be a burden to you, you
would roam alone here and there with no one to
nobody will come and seek
the price                                              of your
wasted life
-breath                                           for ignorant
skin and bones that will fade those too from your mind
and you will not remember in the end”

The escapee feels the added horror that perhaps no one is looking for him.  He is not the lost lamb that the shepherd sets out to retrieve.  He is a hunted animal, always on the run, that fears both being lost and being found.  Z213 is not exactly beach reading.  But perhaps as an autumnal mood sets in, people may be ready to ponder what it feels like to be nothing. 

ALLISON ELLIOTT lives and works in New York City. She is an assistant poetry editor at the online journal 42opus.