Reviews / June 2015 (Issue 28)

The Precarious Destitute: A Possible Commentary on the Lives of Unwanted Immigrants

by Michael O'Sullivan


Dimitris Lyacos (author), Shorsha Sullivan (translator), With the people from the bridge, Shoestring Press, 2014. 64 pgs.


Poena Damni is Dimitris Lyacos's trilogy written over the course of seventeen years in reverse order. Z213: Exit, the first of the three parts to the story but the last to appear in print, was reviewed in the February 2011 issue of Cha. The last part of the story The First Death (the first to appear in print) describes, as the blurb on Z213: Exit suggests, "the struggle of the mutilated hero on the island." The second episode Nyctivoe or With the people from the bridge describes a "grotesque ritual of redemption." This publication history is complicated further by the fact that the second part under the original title Nyctivoe was initially published in 2001 in Greek (English translation 2005) only for this work to be "substituted" by the new version, With the people from the bridge (appearing in 2014) that is being reviewed here. This might be regarded as a postmodern publication history. Shorsha Sullivan has translated the entire trilogy. His dedicated work with Shoestring Press which brings this important contemporary European avant-garde collection to English readers for the first time is a credit to the task of the translator

The work itself is deceptively simple at times, for it demands much from the reader if the reader is to be expected to want to discover a plot or a fabula behind the syuzhet. The work has been described as pushing the boundaries of postmodern dystopic fiction. Lyacos is a respected contemporary avant-garde writer, and the work displays many of the techniques that a modern reader may be uncomfortable with simply because of the their complexity. However, the themes the works voice are enduring literary themes: the scapegoat, the return of the dead, redemption, physical suffering, mental illness, the journey. Writers are also evoked constantly, most notably for this reader, Beckett, Dante and Cormac McCarthy.

Lyacos's characters are always downtrodden members of a dystopian hinterland that offers the prospect of redemption. His unwillingness to assign his characters any recognisable locus or ethnicity enables the reader to draw all kinds of parallels. His characters become all at once new immigrants scraping together an existence in the camps or detention centres of Ellis Island, Mission Street in San Francisco, Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong or Balseskin direct provision centre, Ireland.

The fabula or "story" behind With the people from the bridge is difficult to unravel. The Wikipedia entry for the book gives the following summary of events: "With the people from the bridge hinges on the story of a character resembling the Gerasene demoniac from St. Mark's gospel, living in a cemetery, tormented by demons and cutting himself with stones. He enters the tomb of his dead lover attempting to open the coffin in which she seems to lie in a state not affected by decomposition, and the urgency of his desire projects life into her body whose passage back to life is described."

The "I" of the narrative comes across a group living out of the shell of a car in a kind of shantytown. He seems to have been sent to report on them or guide them somewhere. The descriptions of the characters privilege their physical conditions and traits: "they kept opening and closing their eyes all the time, like spasms reaching as far as their mouth." A TV and a cassette-recorder sit on the bonnet of the car. These are switched on at different times in the narrative, interrupting the voice of the "I" and also reminding the reader of Beckett's Krapp. The names of the four characters living around the car further problematise traditional notions of narrative voice and authorial voice while also invoking traditional genre devices from classical theatre. They are named Narrator, Chorus (a group of women), LG and NCTV. There are two streams of narrative in the book, an italicised stream that acts like a kind of stage direction or description of events from a more objective perspective, and a regular font stream that appears to give us more subjective, contemplative extracts from the perspective of the characters and possibly the "I."

At times, the "I" seems to be a prisoner or a victim of punishment: "This pain is like the clock that is heard / every time you pay attention to it. Take it and throw it away." We then learn that the "I" has entered a crypt of some kind and has disinterred the corpse of a loved one: "In the end I got her out. I let her down and / went to see the blanket in case the wind / had blown it away. I went again and laid down / beside her. I was tired. / Enough light. A white worm, long. / A finger digging all by itself. Leave something for me." Biblical language appears regularly most often when Narrator is mentioned, a character who carries a Bible around and tears pages from it to stick on walls: "for he saith; in a time accepted / I have heard thee and in the day / of salvation have I succoured thee." We then hear of a group simply described as "they" who appear to be searching for bodies or scapegoats to offer possibly as sacrifice: "Do you see them there? Like a wave that swells as it comes. Full now. Here, look here."

This is reminiscent of Eliot's modernist dystopia and the crowd his narrator sees flowing over London Bridge in "The Waste Land"—"I had not thought death had undone so many." However, this narrator offers us none of the sureties of the modernist reading experience. The postmodern unreliable narrator—who is all the time commenting on the actions of a character called Narrator—merges the emotions of rapture, salvation and desperation in such a way that the sanity of the voice becomes an issue as well as the question of how dreamlike these states are.

Nevertheless, the somewhat threatening "they" group, who at times appears to be led by the messianic "He" character, then enact a kind of immolation or cremation of the body that may just have been salvaged from the crypt: "They put her inside, face down. Inside there was someone else too. They dropped her on top of him ... Flames, then only smoke. They drenched a cloth and threw it in. Slowly, it took."

At such moments, once a scapegoat has been found or when there is an intimation of sacrifice, we return to biblical language that also speaks of immigration and the search for a Promised Land. In the wake of the immigrant boat tragedies in the Mediterranean, Lyacos might be regarded as engaging in a degree of social commentary in allowing us to understand the desperation and religious-like devotion recent immigrants have for their quests across the Mediterranean: "For they that are coming / declare plainly that they seek a country. / and truly if they had been mindful / of that country / from whence they came out, / they might have had the opportunity / to have returned / and stayed there; / but now they desire a better country, / that is heavenly. / wherefore God is not ashamed / to be called their God." And if we can read the interior speculations of the narrative voice as merging the "I" and the amorphous "they" before the authority of the "He," then we might also speculate as to whether this voice enables us to experience the relief tinged with fear of those who have safely made the crossing to another life, over the bridge of human bodies where any bridge we imagine can only be constructed out of the toil of our bodies: "They all hold each other and go up / one on top of the other, they are / the bridge [my emphasis]. One goes up on top of the other. They step on and pass. Then the bridge fades."

This motif where the idealised notion of the bridge ends up being a structure that must conform to the dimensions of the human effort needed to support a structure that can act as a bridge might also be regarded as referencing debate on the Lesbian Rule that in Aristotle and Montaigne speaks for a pliant, flexible notion of judgment or reason. Is Lyacos challenging the ultimate value of received narratives of redemption and salvation that do not take sufficient notice of the truly human actions that can offer communities the lived salvation of better living conditions?

Lyacos ends this episode with what appears like a female crucifixion: "Her arms spread out above, plank, they bound them with wire on the plank and they were holding her tightly. Two were holding her arms. Bloated belly and stomach. Hammer, stake on the chest. It broke inside. Rattle. Blood. A lot." This crucifixion also brings with it a resurrection that comes to us in biblical language once we are told Narrator has put his "book aside": "son of man, can these bones live / and I answered, O Lord God, thou knowest. / and he said unto me, behold, / I will open your graves / and cause you to come up out of your graves / behold I will cause breath to enter into you / and i will lay sinews upon you / and will bring flesh upon you/ and will cover you with skin / and put breath in you / and ye shall live."

The biblical resurrection motif is nailed to the mast of Lyacos's ending. For such an openly avant-garde piece, this may seem somewhat jarring until we remember that the Bible itself contains some of the most memorable, avant-garde pieces of literature and narrative. This is a book that brilliantly merges postmodern dystopian language-scapes with an occasional fervent religiosity of tone that one might find in Rapture-inspired evangelical fictions. However, Lyacos manages to convey time and again the multifaceted nature of aesthetic struggle that is always as much about shouldering the burden to be avant-garde as it is about returning to enduring motifs like sacrifice, resurrection and suffering.

Despite the reluctance to pin Lyacos's work down to any specific site of struggle, the reader comes away also having found in his words one of the most evocative and moving depictions of the sense of terror and hope that so many precarious lives experience today in making their journeys by boat or by foot to the various promised lands of plenty.

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