With the People from the Bridge, recently translated by Shorsha Sullivan, is the second part of Dimitris Lyacos' Pena Damni, a trilogy that took the author twenty years to complete. The work was produced out of sequence: end, beginning, then dulcis in fundo the middle section -- maybe the missing link for all to make sense.
The offset delivery clarifies - just in case - this is no serial thriller needing careful unraveling, though it deals with dark matter, and some critics have stored it in the horror category. Wrong. This is no serial thriller.
The odd shuffling of numbers states - more interestingly - that time doesn't run linearly in the trilogy's world: it runs in place, or in concentric circles. As it does - we all have experienced it at some point - in particular moments, those piercing the predictability of routine. Those moments of passage, crisis, rupture - some philosophers call them "events" - so incompatible with the categories of daily existence, that we live them in a sort of "elsewhere". Then we forget about them - unless they've carried us away. If we survive we forget about them: just as if a stone had splashed in the pond, rippling at its heart's content (concentric waves, obviously), until all motion vanished as if nothing had happened.
With the People from the Bridge is that stone. It goes that fast. It is that compact. It breaks the surface. It raises a hell of resonances. Then it disappears, leaving the reader puzzled. "What happened? Did anything?" Not sure. Still, if she pays attention, she can feel the vibrations. They last for a while.
I just used the world hell, I realize. Latin Poena Damni, title of the trilogy, in catholic tradition (where the concept of hell is also originated) defines the quintessence of damnation. It's the pain of loss, intended as loss of the divine. In other terms, fall from the grace of god. So the trilogy apparently deals with death and what happens afterwards: judgment, damnation, redemption… all the paraphernalia. If such is the case, another quite famous trilogy necessarily comes up: Dante's Commedia, often referred to by Lyacos' reviewers. Well of course.
Having gulped every single verse of it in my school days, I dare say the similarity is limited to the subject matter - and yet.
Is this book about hell? Not sure. Is it about the pain of loss? Yes.
So what happens? Does anything?
Lyacos' text is a lyrical prose, a prose poem if you like, injected with stage notes that propel it in the category of drama. A hybrid, endowed with the freedom inherent to the category. Nothing, truly, is supposed to happen, but there is a core of action around which the text revolves, winding then unwinding (a moon commanding the tides) ring after ring of words. Emotions. Meaning.
The core of action (that pit getting wrapped then unwrapped) is loss. I have said it before.
The narrator (inherited from the trilogy's previous part, but here undefined) arrives - enters as if from the wings - in a non-lieu, a waste land, a frontier as featureless as he is. There he witnesses a performance of sorts - a rite, a celebration. Four characters share the stage. Let's break this down.
First, another narrator. A double? Not quite. Master of ceremony, officiator, priest, messenger, tzadik. A rite is taking place, thus such presence is needed.
Second is a female chorus: women making a fire inside an oil drum, serving food when convenient. A chorus: is this a Greek tragedy? Comedy? Tragedy - no hint of humor is present. Why women, who are they?
They are those who traditionally didn't make war - is the answer that comes to mind. Those who used to stay home, take care of the wounded, feed the hungry and keep the fire going. Is this the case?
It may be. As the lines progress, spiraling like a strand of DNA (packed with about the same amount of data) elements of war are detectable. There is fear: so embedded, so sunk in, it almost became callous. Numb: but it is fear. There are imprisonment and hiding. There is torture. There are possible enemies, evoked as "them": a threatening entity, a bit blurred - sometimes they're waited upon as saviors. Maybe there are several "them" getting mixed in the circumvolutions, borrowing extraneous traits, melting identities.
Still there could be war, or have been. The scenario, as designed, could be post-bellum. People are packed under a bridge in what looks like cells, huts, shanties - made by closing the arches with whatever is found. Not unheard of. Familiar in fact. An old car is buried in the mud. There are electronic devices, kind of obsolete, as a TV screen and a cassette player. No computers, no phones and no Internet: some catastrophe has happened.
There could be war. But in fact the under-bridge-village strongly evokes a necropolis. There is death: that doesn't conflict with war.
There is food. Who are the women, why is the chorus made of women only? Here's the thing: they are praeficae, mourners. In Mediterranean tradition they were hired to weep for the dead: loudly, as loud as they could. They were grief professionals, similar in concept to sex workers (aka love professionals). The bonfire inside an oil drum now makes perfect sense: that's how whores used to keep warm in old countries, in old times. Oil-drum-fires in the outskirts of town, or under the bridges, remote and removed.
There is death and there is food. In old times, old countries - and in persisting traditions - there are banquets at wakes. Much food is prepared, ritual food. It has several meanings, all important. It is meant for the living, for the dead, for the otherworldly divinities, for the ambiguous spirits of transit.
I did not introduce the two principals. Sorry for the long detour: but that's how the book goes. It meanders down like a maelstrom - carrying tons of detritus in its spires: floating items, astonishingly kept, exposed as if on museum's shelves. Polished fragments, freshly torn from the cabins of a boat that just sank, freshly vomited by suitcases and trunks. Fragments of narration and memory lurk, come on stage, then exit again, while the vortex of words seeps deeper. After all we are under water. There is water under the bridge.
The main characters are presented at last, after the MC and the Chorus. They are defined by letters (initials or acronyms). A man and a woman: it might matter or not.
As he enters, the man takes the lead of what now sounds as a monologue, though refracted in four parts. Now the circle enclosing us, suddenly, squares itself: it becomes a prison cell or a coffin. In such cramped stance a monologue urges on: split in four, as if double-stereoed. Echoed. Reverberated.
Still, it is the man's monologue. It is the man's story: witnessed by the chorus, the MC, the narrator, the people of the bridge.
The man lost the woman - the fourth character, initially present only as a recording, flashing on an ill-functioning TV screen. Maybe a fake TV? At least manipulated, we suspect.
First, the man lost the woman. This all is the story of a loss. Have I said it? I know… because loss has no story. It doesn't unravel in time: it pierces it. Pokes a hole, sinks in, scatters all. Then, there are reverberations.
The woman was hurt. We are not sure if she has died. Or has she? Maybe not, for she intervenes in the monologue, reclaiming her part. The woman was hurt - horribly, we fear, or maybe not. For the man tries to rescue her. That's what the entire story is about, is it? Finally. He is attempting to rescue her: he can't let her go. Just a matter of trying harder. Trying. Harder.
He has succeeded, we guess. He has rescued her: wherever she was, whatever "they" did to her. The two are now reunited and that is what counts, though we are not sure about final outcomes: there's a lot of gore, there are body parts out of place. There's increasing confusion: we don't know when things are occurring, if they have happened or still have to, what is dream or hallucination, where's reality (if such thing belongs to the present circumstance).
Anyway they are reunited, and that is what counts. That is where the action was aimed, that is why the MC was summoned and the chorus, hopefully, paid. Only, confusion gets deeper while the monologue narrows, bouncing back and forth between the main characters.
Euridice: "Do not turn, please". Orpheus: "Sorry, dear, I can't help it. I can't".
We are perplexed: maybe the woman rescued the man. That is why their respective gender, after all, isn't critical: at some point they hazardously merge. They fuse. When they separate, parts are messily switched, as after a chromosomal meiosis.
Maybe she's the one who has rescued him and he was the one captured, hurt, tortured (war is still in the background, still a possibility). Maybe he was delirious when he thought things were opposite. She's the one who pulled him out of the wreckage (is there a bombed ship? there must be): too late probably. Now he is dying. They are both dying. They are both dead. It is unclear.
There's an ending. The woman is crucified. Certainly she is, for she might be pregnant. "They" pierce her swollen belly and whatever was in spills, fecundating perhaps those wasted surroundings. Resurrection?
There's an epilogue - a fait-divers, a newspaper cutout, but without a date. A man is found close to the Hollywood Cemetery, in possession of a partially decomposed head. Woman's head.
Welcome, this is Los Angeles (we-are-the-angels): la citta' lontana, the far away city. Far from anywhere.
The man hangs on to the woman's head. Maybe his anima: he can't let her go. Only partially decomposed: he's no necrophile - she hasn't been dead for long. She hasn't finished dying. Though he allegedly stole her head, he is not just a gravedigger. This is not a story of vampires. Not a horror story.
It's a story about loss: that thing stuck in time, taking place in nowhere-land (under one of Los Angeles bridges, why not).
The man hangs on to the head, for his loss is still incomplete. It still reverberates. Loss does not have a bottom. It does not end. The last page of the book bounces us back to the beginning. All we can do is listen to the voice/voices. All we can do is witness.
There are tons of literary, philosophical, religious, mythological references in Lyacos' With the People from the Bridge. They have all picked up by reviewers, for they are pretty transparent though perfectly assimilated. Besides Dante's Commedia (a tenuous link, in my opinion), the Apocalypse and all apocalyptic dystopias. Then those masterpieces where nothing happens, and we are stuck into a suspended labyrinth: Kafka, Beckett. Artaud and the theater of the absurd. Classic tragedy, classic epos, Homer of course.
The affinities that most strike me are with Arrabal's Fando and Lys (also theater of the absurd, also a transit from nowhere to nowhere, revolving about the symbiotic relationship of a man with a paralyzed woman). Even more with Orgia (a Pasolini's verse drama, excavating with a similar surgical hand the pain of sexual abuse - not that different from the pain of death/loss).
Lyacos' language in the book has a dual quality. Syntactic simplification makes it dry, quick, matter of fact, percussive. The erratic logic is condensed and fastened by the verbal economy. There's no foam, though we are dragged underwater. There's no spill: or it gets promptly sucked in. The words - fragmented sentences - precipitate, vertically, under a natural pull of gravity. All is centered. A complex, multiple hieroglyph lines up just like an arrow, unfailingly bound to the target.
Still the language is lyrical. Pages are constellated with characteristic similes - a sort of signature - evocative of the compound attributes found in Homeric epics. Things from disparate domains, things with nothing in common are quickly, boldly compared. Pain is like a clock. Her arm is soft like liver. Train's like a heart beating. Paper like honey. She is like a wave inside. He is like a needle in your ear. Things unanimated become parts of the body. Bodies disembody into things.
As it happens in those crucial moments when language expands itself, simultaneously sticking to the very essential: for there's no time left. I mean, there's no time at all. Thus, language fastens up but it also get pierced, thorn, blown up, to fill in layers and layers. Metaphor over metaphor - although they are not such: because meanings directly overlap, without need for formalities.
This occurs when language begins, and when it ends. It happens at the hinges between realities, and it's called delirium. This eminently occurs during agony: that weird runway, both for takeoff and landing. Where to, where from, we don't know.
I suspect that's where Lyacos - masterfully - plays his balancing act.
Toti O'Brien is an artist and writer, born in Rome and living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Synesthesia, Wilderness House, Sein und Werden and Litro NY, among other journals and anthologies.</a>