Friday, 9 November 2012

The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith

Living in a small town in Greece, in her recent past, had a very negative ring to it. Pressure from international trends often led to small towns being regarded as symbols of backwardness. Until the crisis hit, the general attitudes towards small Greek towns were usually disparaging. Admittedly, small towns have always lacked the faster pace of progress of a capital city or a large urban conglomeration, and they often lack symbols of urban culture that resemble progress, like regular theatre showings, 24-hour supermarkets and brand-labelled fast-food outlets, but such institutions are only possible when there is a large population available to sustain them, or if such elements are seen as desirable by a community. Lack of opportunities still plagues small towns, although this problem could also be attributed to a disinterest by the community to develop feasible opportunities.

1st editionHania in the early 1960s, as Patricia Highsmith describes it, while using the island of Crete as the setting of her novel The Two Faces of January, is a boring dusty old-fashioned-looking town, where nothing interesting happens. The story is set in the depths of winter, which has always been regarded by most Greek urbanites as the most boring time to be in the επαρχία away from the mainland, because the islands' sea-and-sun image do not allow for regular activities associated with island life to take place (swimming, sunbathing, dining outdoors). This is still very much true in the second millenium. The Mediterranean islands may be some of the most beautiful in the world, but they seem to have a 'Closed till next year' appearance in the wintertime, when the rains come in deluges, and transportation is hampered.

So is μεσιμέρι (mesiMEri), the middle of the day, whether it's summer or winter; the town empties out eerily at this time of the day, something that visitors find disconcerting, even in modern times, as many of my students have remarked, particularly concerning weekends. On Sunday, all the commercial stores are closed, giving a ghostly appearance to what seems like a modern town, judging from the store-fronts.

Chester, a character from Highsmith's novel, and his wife Colette arrive in Hania at this time of the day, and are faced with an image that arouses feelings of poverty mixed with rural peasantry:
Photo: Roula Spartali
Chania, at 3.30[pm], presented a town square sprinkled with idle men, centred with a cement memorial statue of some sort, and ringed around with various shops and restaurants. It had a backwater, fifty-years-behind-the-times look of certain towns Chester had seen in the United States, an atmosphere that inspired him to wonder how the inhabitants could possibly make a living. Consequently Chania appeared a little sad. It was not nearly as big as Chester had expected... They strolled in the direction of the sea, which was visible down the street from the main square. The town seemed to offer nothing in the way of beauty. The shops were tiny and poor-looking, there was nothing like a museum or a government building in view. The port was a long curve with a wide wharf going out into the water. The only boats in the harbour were two old tankers.
Many small towns all over Europe, in order to increase their touristic potential, advertise themselves as a place for a weekend or mini-break. Hania, however urbanised it may look, is not really the kind of place a self-confessed urbanite would ever like to find themselves in. Rydal, who travelled to Hania with Chester and Colette, finds it to be a suitable place for contemplation more than anything else:
Photo: Magda Vogiatzi
The paper of Chania, a slim, four-sheet affair, reported what Rydal had expected, absolutely nothing. Rydal asked and was told that the Iraklion and Athens papers would be on sale that evening.  Rydal walked into a cafe and had a cup of coffee. It was a dull town, Chania, but Rydal rather like dull towns, because they forced one to look at things - for want of anything else to do - that one might not otherwise notice. Like the number of flowerpots on window-sills as compared with the number in Athens or in other small towns he had been in on the mainland; the number of cripples on the street; the quality of the building materials used in the houses; the variety or lack of variety in the foodstuffs in the market. The public market looked a bit impoverished, like the rest of the town.
The desolation of a boring town is heightened when an unhappy event takes place in it. Unlike in a large city where you can change suburbs, in a small town, there is nowhere to hide:
Photo: Chrysoula Zikou
Chester had never detested any town as much as he detested Chania. The pattern of the buildings on the street of the hotel had taken on a meaning to him: they were a symbol of hell, a trademark of hell, the very face of hell. Chania was where he had lost Colette. Chania was where he had existed for three days like a hunted dog and watched a seedy young bum seduce his wife... Chania reminded him of his second year at Harvard, when the news of his father's bankruptcy had come, and when Annette, the girl he had been engaged to, had broken off the engagement - instantly, on hearing of the bankruptcy... Chania reminded him of all that. Chania reminded him of failure.
Generally speaking, Highsmith's descriptions of Crete are qell on the mark, although there was one which I found to be completely lacking in credibility for the time period that it takes place in:
Photo: Bettina Truper
'They walked to the market, drifted down aisles of shoes and boots that smelled of cattle urine, stared with detachment and wonder at hanging meat, cut in a manner that made the pieces unidentifiable. They bought ice-cream cones and wandered on, holding hands to keep from getting separated. Colette found a loose, buttonless vest... Rydal helped her bargain for it. They got it for thirty drachmas less that the first price the woman had asked for it. 'I don't think people would pay the first price they ask in places like this, do you? Colette said. 'It's silly tourists who make the prices go up everywhere.'... The ruddy-cheeked peasant woman rolled the vest carefully in a sheet of newspaper, tucked the ends in, and presented it to Colette.
In 1960s Hania, the shoes and boots would probably have smelt very animal-ish,  but the hanging meat in the market would all be quite recognisable. It is highly unlikely that any ice-cream was being sold in Hania in January in the 1960s (in fast, winter ice-cream sales are a relatively recent development here). And I don't think Rydal and Colette would have gotten separated in the market of Hania - it wouldn't have been that busy! A more credible food scene describes a meal taken near the market in Hania:
Photo: Chrysoula Zikou
'Can we eat something in a crummy place?' she asked... 'Where the Greeks go?' Smiling, Rydal pulled her by the arm back in the direction of the town. 'Does this town have anything else?' Colette was quite definite about what she wanted. She wanted a hole-in-the-wall, stand-up kind of place, and Rydal found one in a street next to the market. They ate a piece of hot goat meat on a slab of grey bread, and shared a glass of the worst retsina Rydal had ever put in his mouth. 
Photo: Anastasia Tsigounaki
Hania had not cultivated her tourist image in the early 1960s, so no doubt most places looked crummy, and the food would have been quite basic. Our bread certainly does look grey compared to the model bread being propounded in the 1960s, which was a clean white loaf. Most of the best bread in Greece is an off-white colour. But even in the film version of the novel, some of the food items will be part of a product-placement campaign by the sponsors: EPSA soft drinks would have been unheard of in Hania at the time!

Patricia Highsmith's descriptions of Hania have not put me off her story. In fact, the desolate descriptions suit the storyline: a psychological thriller whose main charcaters are all hiding some kidn of skeleton in the cupboard. The descriptions remind me of the complaints I hear from visitors who never really understood the town, visiting it at the wrong time of the year while they were whizzing through Europe on a whilrwind tour of the continent and couldn't find a more convenient or suitable time to come here. The idea of the desolation one feels in a small town which they expected to be different is developed very well by Highsmith, as the characters change their relationships with each other, tending towards hatred and fear.

In fact, I can't wait to see The Two Faces of January played out on the big screen. I will watch it in a cinema which will be located not far from where the shooting of the film took place. I can imagine the rounds of applause every time my dusty town comes into view. I normally wait till the DVD comes out, but this time, I think I will make it to the cinema, where I expect that there will be no empty seats every night The Two Faces of January is showing.

All photos taken in Hania (photo set can be found in Chania Crete by Nikos), during the shooting of The Two Faces of January last month, starring Viggo Morntensen, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac.

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