An Interview with Dimitris Lyacos

John Taylor interviewing Dimitris Lyacos

John Taylor: Your name appears on various lists of postmodern literature, among others, in the new edition of Fran Mason’s Historical Dictionary of Postmodernist Literature and Theater. In fact, you are the only Greek author included in a volume spanning more than half a century of postmodernism. In the “Lyacos” entry of the dictionary, your work is classified as late modernist/postmodernist and you are also mentioned in the preface as a postmodernist author that has “consolidated his reputation in the new millennium.” How would you comment on that?

Dimitris Lyacos: This is a very difficult question and perhaps only a fraction of an answer is possible here. You are right, most accounts of the trilogy mention postmodernism, a mutual familiarity has developed between this term and my work, to the point that I am also starting to see it that way. But, I think, this is only natural: consider calling someone by any name, even one not his own; sooner or later he will go along with it. The world and ourselves mutually mirror each other. In that respect, I don’t mind being called a postmodern author, although I never used the term either as explanatory framework or modus operandi.     

On the other hand, categorizations make understanding more economical, and there is no harm in accepting them, while it is also true that every work has a complexity of its own. In the current context, postmodernism is, perhaps, a safe bet as far as my work is concerned, especially since it does not seem to relate to any realist trend. What’s more, despite the fact that postmodernist literature’s heyday were the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, the term is being standardly used for works produced in our times. We are still in a postmodern context: postmodern literature has been canonized, Nobel Prizes have been awarded; overall, it still enjoys a “reputation of actuality” which encourages production of new works. I realize, of course, that other trends, or their coinage, like post-postmodernism, cyberpunk, avant-pop, and more, have developed in the meantime, but even those make sense in the context of postmodernism.    

Now, given the complexity and individuality of a work, we could go a little further and ask to what extent postmodernist characteristics are present in it, and, additionally, whether its author shares, in whole or in part, a certain “postmodern philosophy” that would link her to a “postmodern project.” In my case, many people agree that a standard set of postmodern traits is there (i.e. metafiction, pastiche, fragmentation, playfulness, irony, fabulation, etc.) so, perhaps I am allowed to take one of those as an example and comment on how my work fits to it. Pastiche comes readily to mind, perhaps because it happens to be the “classic” postmodern trait according to Fredric Jameson, and, hereupon, I would be reluctant to say that it is involved in what I do, especially if we think of pastiche as a form of imitation, be it benign or tongue-in-cheek.  

There are no borrowed styles in the trilogy unless you refer to the presence of excerpts from other works, or, to elements of intertextuality. There I would agree, although “quotations” are supposed to become part of a unified reading experience and function independently from the sources out of which they were elicited. Mine, like any other text, is a combination of sources, and I don’t suppose we need to go back to the Bible Documentary Hypothesis or the Homeric Question to settle this. The issue here is how unique, as a whole, is the textual landscape of a literature piece? It may contain all kinds of disparate elements and still be identifiable only with itself. In that sense, the “originality of the modern” is not inconsistent with the idea of all texts partaking in a textual community.    

In fact, each and every one is appreciated exactly because of its participation in that community, and, on the other hand, there is a continuous, actual “fugue movement” over the underlying, relative stability of tradition. Texts are there to always interact and feed off each other. During a discussion I had yesterday evening with my friend Luis Miguel Isava, an expert on Lezama Lima and author of a brilliant book on Wittgenstein, Kraus, and Valéry, he mentioned a splinter group of modernist Brazilian poets of the 1920s, formed around Oswald de Andrade who had come up with the concept of “Antropofagia,” a kind of cultural cannibalism that aimed to connect local and avant-garde cultures with the scope of conflating disparate influences and creating something unique. Equally, texts cannibalize on each other and it is exactly this that helps them procreate. Perhaps “keimenofagia” might be a term for it.

JT: And at the same time, in a postmodernist context, texts seem to be conscious of themselves, what we call metafiction. This is a strategy you employ as well.

DL: I agree that texts are conscious of themselves insofar as they are conscious of their own materiality and their function-as-texts but you may want to call this “a reader’s awareness,” most of the time it works as a periodic reminder of textuality, a kind of textual alarm clock. This, however, does not need to be a metafictional strategy. It is a kind of “professional honesty” to present a text for what it is, as a text, or a book, the same way any other professional presents what he has to offer for what it is, a car as a car and a pair of trousers as a pair of trousers. The same happened in the case of the trilogy. I wanted to present a text, a sequence of diary entries in the course of somebody’s voyage, which you may say is (meta)fictional enough, but it is only so because it is presented as a literary publication, thus entering a setting of fictional texts. Under a different rubric, the book could have been approached differently.   

If the reader knew, or could envisage, that there was some strict text/facts correspondence, then the text could be read under an entirely different mindset. Of course, we can always imagine worlds that correspond to texts, and vice versa, so it is trivial to say that we can imagine worlds that would instantiate the texts we have produced. What may not be trivial in the case of the trilogy—and I would like to use Z213: EXIT as an example—is that the book really starts with a piece transposed from a factual context, it is the transcription of a recording—recounted experiences of an actual person’s life. Needless to say, that text belongs neither to me nor to fiction at large. I only made some minor adjustments to it after transcribing what I had recorded, more or less; what you read is what was confided to me. It is a simple case of somebody sharing some of his experiences with you and then you sit down and make a text out of them, a text that can be faithful to the original at varying degrees.

This brings us back to a point already made: all texts are part of each other, smaller entities make up bigger ones, or, break down into simpler constituents in different contexts, and that is why we have an understanding of language the way we do. We would understand nothing otherwise. By the same token, the totality of our texts are “mutually metafictional.” They always reflect themselves and each other, they are parts, or aggregates, of other textual fields, and you have to cross those fields in order to get to where you want to go. That is why it comes as no surprise that metafiction is not exclusively postmodernist. It is with us since Homer, in fact, I think that his invocations of the Muse, his  and  lead to such phone calls like the one Paul Auster receives in the first chapter of City of Glass, or the other that Kurt Vonnegut makes in the opening page of Slaughterhouse-Five.    

Now, in Z213: EXIT, I started off in a manner contrary to the above cases, by effacing the traces of authorial presence. An alien text ushers you in and triggers a sequence of entries that grow and become, piece after piece, the diary of the narrator’s journey. My receding in the background lets the protagonist recover the world for himself as well as come to terms with both his factual and textual experiences. It is no coincidence that early in the book he stumbles upon a bible-like booklet in the pocket of a jacket, while he is still in the train station, before starting his journey, and that this “bible” is a cohabitation of blank parts, actual biblical pieces and texts written by somebody else, a previous owner of the book. He makes use of this booklet, he makes it his own, as is natural to appropriate things that other people have used before us if we need to. In like manner, texts are appropriated by other texts in various forms: intertextuality, textual self-consciousness, cut up or collage, allusion or quotation, or however else you might want to call it. A constant linguistic recycling is set in motion from the time a culture spells its first utterances out in the world.

JT: You speak several languages and have lived in several countries. But are there (still?) “Greek” elements in your writing that can be isolated and defined?

DL: Sometimes I think about those “ethnic diacritics” myself. I must admit that the meaning of words like “Greek” and “Greekness” puzzles me. People speak often about the non-local perspective of my work while, at the same time, an ancient Greek element is mentioned as well. I remember, for instance, a rather recent review picking up on “the Greek Chorus in With the People from the Bridge, the Odysseus-like journey in Z213: EXIT, the brutal abstractions of Greek sculpture in The First Death.” I agree that ancient Greek elements can be located in the trilogy. I am a native Greek speaker, and I always had a great interest in the ancient Greek culture and language. In The First Death, especially, I put to work a kind of diachronic idiom, I used, freely, the whole spectrum of the Greek vocabulary, ancient and modern—I did not do it, however, because I wanted to strengthen the “Greekness” of my texts. The purpose was more to compose a piece that would keep a clear distance from its subject matter and, at the same time, take advantage of the polysemy that ancient Greek vocables have to offer. It turns out, of course, that the English translation is friendlier to the reader; some Greeks are daunted by unknown Greek words encountered for the first time. Of course, that “Greek effect” of linguistic eclecticism was impossible to reproduce in English, so my translator, Shorsha Sullivan, added notes to the end of the book.     

I could go on about more ancient Greek elements, but that would be missing the point. However, if your question is about some essential, all-encompassing kind of Greekness, the presence of some “Greek difference,” then I cannot answer that, I am afraid; I have no way to compress the entire Greek-related material and distill some “Greek” essence out of it. I would therefore feel much more comfortable if I were allowed to go back to the “springboard” of your question and try to move ahead from there: yes, I have lived in several countries, I have spent most of my adult life outside Greece. Does that make me more or less Greek than someone that has lived all his life in the country? I suppose the iconic fisherman on a Greek island appears more “Greek” than I do. Perhaps there is a kind of Greek aura there that could be unambiguously felt, some kind of special perception to tag as “Greek.” Is this a clichéd kind of Greekness? Of course, there is nothing clichéd about any individual fisherman, or anybody else who seems not to care too much about globalized culture and prefers to mind his own business. Obviously, his “Greek” perspective is different than that of, say, a visitor, a traveller, or anyone else who goes on a “Greek” quest. Here, it is the outsider’s view that does the labelling, the mapping of essences, with the scope of returning to them. We may be hardwired with a craving to return to an essence, to go back home, and sometimes we give this home a national name.     

A scene in Paolo Sorrentino’s film Youth struck me some time ago, where a supposedly naïve Hollywood actor cites Novalis: “I always go back home, go back to my father’s house.” This is what he longs for, and most of us crave that return to a place of origin. Sometimes we find what we think is still an authentic, secluded place during a holiday somewhere, the full experience of a simulated Heimkunft (homecoming), to recall Hölderlin’s poem. There is a deeply rooted nostalgia, which brings us back somewhere, and this return to a local core could be named and interpreted in various ways. But should the name of a nation-state be given to it?     

Heidegger speaks about Germanness in his analysis of Hölderlin’s poem. Should the equivalent be called “Greekness” in my case? Has Greekness some kind of experiential or conceptual core which relates to my work somehow? Is there a necessary set of attributes that make up Greek identity? Is it projected in the past or will it materialize in the future when Greece will have completed its historical course? When we are making categorizations of this kind, aren’t we running the risk of sublimating a construct whose scope and function belongs to the political, and of endowing it with metaphysical connotations? Yes, you may retort, but, still, how about language, how about history? How about the fact that your work relates to Greek Tragedy? To that I would have to say: How about Catherine’s monologue in Suddenly, Last Summer? Isn’t it close enough to the Messenger’s gruesome closing monologue in Euripides’ Hippolytus? Is this, then, a Greek element in Tennessee Williams’ writing? In that sense, we are all Greek, so that doesn’t set me, or my work, apart. Having said that, however, I must say I am proud of a “Greek element” reappearing in my work after having been shut out of literature by its Balkan neighbors for a very long time: the Greek vampire.

JT: How do you mean?

DL: I refer to With the People from the Bridge, one of the principal themes there being the return of the dead and their communion with the living. The book is structured as a performance piece, and the story develops through the interchanging soliloquies of the characters, among them NCTV, a “revenant” whose voice is heard from a TV set. I prefer using the term revenant here, instead of vampire, a word conditioned by all kinds of unliterary literature, commercial films and television series alike, and in which everybody is trying to exploit a myth while ignorant of its origins and significance. I have said somewhere else that Hollywood sucked the blood of vampires dry. The term revenant, moreover, does not carry with it any evil connotations, and is a more general term standing in a relation of genus species to the term vampire.     

The farther back in the past one goes, the richer the tradition; in fact, before the end of the 19th century, which saw the publication of Dracula, an incredibly rich folklore existed, part of which was Slavonic—Stoker’s principal source material. The Greek tradition, however, was richer than its Slavonic equivalent. So-called “vampire epidemics” were ubiquitous, only to wane around the end of the 19th century, and the nowadays famous tourist spots, Mykonos and Santorini, were classic theaters of vampire operations. Famously, Tournefort, a French botanist traveling in Greece in 1700, becomes witness, in Mykonos, to a “a tragic scene” as he describes it, of a body being exhumed in the midst of great distress by the local populace who were convinced they were dealing with a vrykolakas (the common Greek name for a vampire), and rushing to take the proper measures (burning of the body) in order to protect themselves. Santorini is another place infested by vampires and there are many stories related to the island as well as to other Greek locations. The situation was probably not that desperate though, since the Greek revenant, like I said, differs significantly from its Slavonic counterpart: it neither roams exclusively by night, nor is it prone to blood drinking, and it is by no means necessarily evil: we hear of a Santorini shoemaker who had returned from the dead in order to continue his work and help his family with the everyday chores.    

The profusion of interesting stories aside, what I think is important is the connection of the revenant with a certain Orthodox Church practice that kept the myth alive: excommunication. With it came the belief of the laity, also fanned by the Church, that the body of an excommunicated person would not decompose after death. This is a grim prospect for a human being, in Christian as well as in ancient Greece: the revenant becomes a tragic, wretched, and homeless creature in search of a resting place.    

At the same time, but from a different perspective, communion with the dead is necessary for the living, in the sense that their “existence” should be in harmony with them. They may be far out, but they are there. So, they come back and pledge for proper burial, as did Patroclus and Elpenor, and they can also return to demand revenge for their untimely death. Ancient Greek festivals and mysteries have a special place for them, and they come back to reclaim their place in this world for at least a day in the year, notably, during the Anthesteria festival, the dead come back to join the living and the table is set for them. In the same vein, the Eleusinian Mysteries exercised an overarching influence, holding an important position among the precursors of the Christian metaphysics of resurrection. Happy and blessed was he who participated in the Mysteries, for he was offered the ultimate comfort: death was an unsurpassable limit no more. The living had hope again, as did Demetra, periodically reunited with her beloved daughter.     

Needless to say, the Greeks were not the only ones to have developed such beliefs. I would only briefly like to mention Samhain, a progenitor of Halloween. This is another important tradition of revenants, and I became very interested in it when I was working on With the People from the Bridge.

JT: This in-depth handling of the myth strikes me, however, when I think that your version of the “vampire” in With the People from the Spring speaks out of a TV set.

DL: Certainly, this was not to reduce the importance of the NCTV character’s soliloquies and not exactly to make an ironic comment on the exploitation of the myth by popular media. One could see it that way of course, and a reader at one time came up to me and said that NCTV sounds like the name of a TV channel, quite appropriate in the circumstances of a character’s voice coming out of a television receiver. The idea of that name had occurred to me, however, for an entirely different reason: it had simply resulted from omitting the vowels of “Nyctivoe,” the character that had NCTV’s place in the previous version of the book. Additionally, the idea of having a character speak from a TV set was a solution to a practical issue. As NCTV speaks from a car, it would have been impossible to hear what she has to say, so a device like a TV set, reproducing image and sound outside, was an obvious thing to do. It also, comfortably, suggested that the revenant-like character stands on a different plane, so, it would only be fair to bring her narrative forward in an oblique, mediated way.

One might also see here a playful allusion to EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomenon); personally, however, I like to see this more as a modern-day ekkyklema, the machine rolled out on stage to the audience of Greek Tragedy, in order to reveal, mostly, dead bodies. This is an interesting breach of theatrical space, as the audience is given the opportunity to perceive events taking place outside the established frame. The space of the action is broadened and attention is drawn to the liminal character of theatrical vs. real, the inside becoming now correlative with the extraneous “outside.” As a result, the “space beyond” is transformed into a second-order theatrical space, or, you might simply say that real and fictional space become coextensive.

On a final note, I am also happy with the fact that the use of the TV set creates an effect of distancing/alienating the revenant figure; it is like looking through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars. This brings us back to the long list of folk legends, literature, and religious myths nowadays “alienated” through media use handing them over to us in some kind of obverse way, “burying” deeper and deeper their content and significance. In like manner, in With the People from the Bridge, the white noise in the background gets stronger and stronger and the performers’ soliloquies become more and more difficult to hear.

JT: Last question: How does it feel to have completed the trilogy after working on it for such a long time? And how about plans for future projects?

DL: It certainly gives me a feeling of satisfaction and a sense of stability and cohesion. For many years I have been thinking about this work as a trilogy, and this is what I ended up with. More recently, however, it has started to appear to me under a different light, like a tetralogy with a missing first part.