Meriting numerous reviews and translations appearing in thirteen languages, Dimitris Lyacos’s Poena Damni (Shoestring Press) trilogy is among the most well-received pieces of contemporary Greek literature. Published between 1996 and 2018, and first translated into English by Shorsha Sullivan, each volume pulls the reader deeper into a complex journey (redolent of Odysseus’ suffering-laden nostos), which unfurls across a nightmarish landscape that remains recognizably modern, even as it takes on the duskier hues of Dante’s Inferno and the Old and New Testaments. The story is not told through the unified voice of a consistent narrator, but through a uniquely polyphonous voice, woven together from a series of shifting narrative perspectives that are liminal in nature—a fugitive, the possessed, the revenant, a body in the process of decay. The underlying theme is the inevitability of mortal suffering and the possibility of spiritual renewal in a world alive with the presence of the dead, explored in a vivid style with philosophical overtones that defy easy genre classification. Over the past year, I’ve worked as Lyacos’s new translator, and we have developed a warm friendship while corresponding over the Poena Damni, life’s inevitable vicissitudes, and the intricate network of themes that are informing the development of his latest work.
Andrew Barrett A revised edition of the English translation of the Poena Damni trilogy’s second installment, With the People from the Bridge, was just published in October. What changes to the text and translation are you most pleased with?
Dimitris Lyacos I have used, more than once, the simile of Neurath’s boat to give some idea of the process of writing and revising the trilogy. You are in a boat on the open sea, and you have to work on it and repair it while you are sailing. You can do a certain amount of reconstruction, and, if you are lucky, get a hold of some driftwood that can be substituted for some of your rotten planks. Ultimately, the pleasure lies in the fact that you feel safer in the boat and are perhaps even sailing at a greater speed. In the new edition of With the People from the Bridge, I have made some minor adjustments, mostly in the “matrix narrator” parts, where the spectator of the “performance” pauses to describe the goings-on on stage. Since the background of the setting becomes a little blurred when the reader focuses on the sequence of the soliloquies, these quasi–stage directions needed some additional attention, and I am glad I had the chance to do that in the second edition. Initially, when I got the news that there would be a second edition, I thought the book was fine as it was—but, once again, there was some work to be done. I didn’t have to demolish anything, like I have done in previous editions.
AB I find the Neurath’s boat analogy compelling in part because it originates from the realm of analytic philosophy and not literature. Does your background in the analytic tradition either inform your approach to poetic composition or how you approach the abstract ideas that inform your work? I think it is fair to say that the worlds of analytic philosophy and contemporary poetry are rarely in dialogue.
DL Yes, you are absolutely right, analytic philosophy seems to connect better with science. It is still philosophy though, and, in that sense, a relationship to literature is not impossible, even if in the past most analytic philosophers have kept themselves clear of some of their suspicious continental colleagues. I remember an incident back in the early nineties, during a senior seminar at University College London, when I had made a comment referencing Nietzsche after a paper had been read. Ted Honderich, who was leading the seminar, turned quite casually and said that if I wanted to speak about Nietzsche, the Literature Department would be the place to do it. For me, analytic philosophy had come in the end, as a sequel to a general philosophy background and it took me some time to see the point of it. Eventually, I realized that, despite its intricate technicalities, it handles major questions faced by us all. And certainly, it was something that I took on board in the writing process, especially as far as structure and conceptual issues are concerned.
In Z213: EXIT, the narrator, in the course of his train voyage, starts to question the stability of the world around him, moving through fleeting sensations that could bring to mind Locke’s primary and secondary qualities. He goes on, through an imperceptibly thickening “veil of perception,” to detach himself from the situation he finds himself immersed in. You could speak about epistemological dualism here, or go further and see the piece through an idealist perspective. At the same time, the effect is something akin to a dolly zoom, conveying the narrator’s anxiety, as in the famous Liotta/De Niro Goodfellas scene, and a gradual feeling of unreality of the world—a derealization effect, to bring in a term from psychology. In a way, he becomes antithetical to the world, a dissociated locus of sense perceptions, as Dewey might have said. Luckily, literature, with its lack of analytic rigor, allows for a synthesis of all those disparate elements in the reading experience.
ABThis seems like the perfect time to note that, over the years, the Poena Damni trilogy has either inspired or has been translated into works of visual art, dance, theater, and music. Can you speak more to not only literature’s allowance for a synthesis of disparate intellectual and artistic elements, but to literature’s ability to expand its impact beyond the page through collaborative interaction with the other arts?
DL I think this synthesis takes place in most works of literature and I am no pioneer in that respect. It is in the trilogy as well, even though each individual stratum may not be obvious at first glance. We could take an example, what I call the “Jacob’s ladder” piece from Z213: EXIT. It offers a biblical element, an oblique view of Meister Eckhart’s theology mediated through cinema (Andrian Lyne’s film by the same name), and, more unexpectedly, symptoms connected to the use of an incapacitating military agent. The text becomes more fluid with all those elements impersonating different “literary roles.” Jokingly, I like to think of it as a kind of “total literature,” if the Dutch, who invented “total football,” would allow me to borrow their term.
Now, since literature flourishes in such soil, it is only natural that it can expand and increase its impact through other artistic media: it is a kind of positive feedback loop, in terms of its ability to inspire and be inspired. I have had the luck to see projects grow out of my work and into something different and more tangible—in the case of performances, for example—and it is great to see the page being animated in such a way. On the other hand, these emanations have always been present in our culture. Many “pages” have been turned into composite experiences that engage all our senses. The Bible, and the rituals stemming from it, is the most obvious example. Of course, it may not always be the case that the text has priority over a performance piece—or a ritual—but it is certainly inherently connected to it. As a Classics professor, you may recall the tripartite division of the ritual in the central hall, the Telesterion, of the Eleusinian Mysteries: δρώμενα, δεικνύμενα, and λεγόμενα—things done, shown, and said. And, to go back to pharmacology, perhaps things drunk as well.
AB Regarding things drunk at the Eleusinian Mysteries, I believe you are referring to the kykeon, a brew sacred to Demeter and Persephone that some scholars now believe was hallucinogenic in nature due to the presence of ergot. Is there any degree to which your work is informed by the psychedelic experience or non-ordinary states of consciousness, such as dreaming?
DL There are hardly any states induced by substances in the trilogy, with the exception of the one we already mentioned. “Non-ordinary states of consciousness” is a much wider concept of course, and yes, you are right, one can read the trilogy with that perspective, although it’s all a matter of interpretation. If the “universe” of the trilogy seems unreal, then a reader can approach this by either assuming that the world is distorted or the protagonists are experiencing a distortion in their heads—and if you adopt that internalist view, you can end up saying that there is a stable world out there which is altered by the minds of the subjects.
Since there are no psychedelic substances involved, and since those “non-ordinary states” may be more than a temporary exit from normal, baseline reality, there must be other candidates present that create more stable, or even permanent alterations—which we like to call pathological states. With the People from the Bridge begins with an excerpt from St. Mark’s Gospel, a case of demonic possession, which is a springboard for the development of the character LG. This book in particular, may be taken to exhibit non-ordinary states, and the storyline, based on the myth of the revenant, goes in that direction too. The “spectator” character is confronted with a double illusion: first comes the theatrical effect, as such, then the non-realistic material of the play itself. Here, paradoxically, this double illusion might even strike one as more real than a “realist” subject-matter.
Aside from this case, there is certainly some dreaming going on in the trilogy, and it is natural, I think: humans spend roughly six years of their lives in their dream worlds. And, as dreams are connected to both the concept of an outright lie and ultimate truth, it is our choice if we want to side with the Australian aboriginals and the Dreamtime, or, Hobson’s theory of dreams as a random synthesis – or, even see them as garbage that needs to be taken out at night to make room for the newcomers of the following day.
ABThe gate of ivory, the gate of horn, and the space in-between: Could you briefly speak to the ideas that are informing your latest work—the work that we are just beginning to undertake?
DL I am still, actually, in a phase of half-empty forms between ivory gates, to paraphrase Eliot. For the past few years I have been taking notes for a new book. It is not off the ground just yet, but I hope to start sometime next year. The way it looks to me now, it could develop to become a prequel to Z213: EXIT. I don’t think there is a way to go forward from the third book. The last section of The First Death does not allow any room ahead; the starting piece of the trilogy, however, challenges me to explore the community that the narrator detaches himself from. There have been some locations, in the past years, that have interested me in with respect to this, among them, Catal Huyuk in Anatolia and the Solovki Islands in the White Sea. A month ago, while on Solovki, I tried my luck on a new piece: it was a sudden decision, perhaps triggered by the aura of the midnight twilight of the Arctic. I sat on a boat on the shore, facing the tide receding from the monastery, and came up with a text. Certainly, I will have to do a lot of work on it—and those that might follow—before I dare send anything to you to translate into English.