Treading the labyrinth

Reconstruction of part of Knossos complex (Wikipedia Commons)
Reconstruction of part of the Knossos complex (Wikipedia Commons)

Patricia Highsmith:
The Two Faces of January.
Sphere 2014 (1964)

With the action mostly set in Athens, Crete and Marseille — the French port an ancient Greek colony — it’s hardly surprising that Highsmith’s crime novel has the feel of a classical legend. From the title (The Two Faces of January is a nod to the Roman two-headed god Janus whose month opened the year) to a crucial scene in Knossos (reputedly the inspiration for the Cretan labyrinth) we can’t help but be aware that this very 20th-century tragedy has its affinities, its roots even, in the ancient world; for all its modern trappings the story turns on eternal human failings like hubris, that pride that can bring down both the guilty and the innocent.

This novel is a play with just three leading characters and a small cast of bit players. Chester MacFarlane is an American conman hiding out in Europe with his young wife Colette. Rydal Keener is an intelligent young American avoiding confrontation with his critical father before feeling guilty for having not attended his funeral. Chester survives under numerous aliases but has little facility with modern foreign languages like Greek; Rydal is fluent in French, Italian and Greek and so is in a position to help Chester and Colette when a Greek detective is inadvertently killed. Why does Rydal help the couple? Is it just because Chester reminds him of his father and Colette of his first love?

Patricia Highsmith expertly gets into the minds of the two male leads, alternating between their two points of view; Colette herself is a little more of an enigma — that she is attracted to the younger man is clear but Chester’s jealousy and Rydal’s ambiguous responses are intriguing enough for her to play a two-timing game, albeit Platonic at first. As we follow their furtive flight from Athens to Iraklion, to Rethymnon and Chania, back to Athens and then on to Paris and Marseille we sense that their cat-and-mouse game, as well as that between the trio and the police, can only end badly for some if not all of them.

Knossos labyrinth coin

Highsmith’s playing with classical myths is light, never overplayed. One doesn’t need to be aware of the subtle references to enjoy her psychological thriller, but I can’t help noting parallels. There’s Oedipus, who unwittingly kills his father Laius and is attracted to Jocasta, his father’s wife. Then there’s Theseus who sets sail from Athens to defeat Minos’ creature the Minotaur in his maze with the help of Minos’ daughter Ariadne, who subsequently dies;when, on returning to Athens, Theseus forgets to signal the success of his quest, his father Aegeus kills himself. And of course the protagonists’ journey from one end of the Mediterranean to the other is nothing less than an odyssey with all its attendant dangers, and a happy outcome never guaranteed.

Above all what impresses is Highsmith’s ability to persuade us to empathise a little with anti-heroes and almost-lost souls who have to survive by their wits and connivances, whatever the cost to others. While Chester at times seems irredeemable there is a moment when he comes over like a modern-day Sydney Carton in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: you could almost hear him thinking “It’s a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done.” Colette is a thoroughly decent enigma who doesn’t deserve the roll of the dice Fate deals her, while Rydal — well, does this chancer survive like cunning Odysseus or will he become morally blind like Oedipus?

This is such a well-crafted novel which satisfies on many levels. A Cretan holiday taken many Easters ago meant that I had some familiarity with its northern locations — the three main towns and Knossos itself — and so was able to imagine the trio in situ as they treaded their labyrinthine path (away, as they hoped, from the authorities) that January, over half a century ago.

I haven’t seen the film, but from this short trailer it’s evident that some slight liberties have been taken with Highsmith’s original

7 thoughts on “Treading the labyrinth

  1. earthbalm

    It’s usually a mistake for me to see the film whether it’s before or after reading the book.
    I love that that your book choices are so diverse.


    1. I like it when the film adaptation throws light on the book, Dale. The Lord of the Rings, for all the overblown nature of the movie trilogy, made my umpteenth reread even more enjoyable (sadly, not something I can say about the ill-judged The Hobbit triad), and Ten Things I Hate About You was a brilliant take on The Taming of the Shrew. Of course, there are too many examples of changed endings (the 1954 animated version of Animal Farm negated Orwell’s message, not surprising as I now see from Wikipedia that it was funded by the CIA).

      Hossein Amini, who both wrote the screenplay for and directed the film, wrote admiringly of the novel in his introduction to the edition I read, from which I deduce that he was largely faithful to the big themes while making the adjustments that it seems all directors are contractually obliged to make to their original material.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I saw, and enjoyed the film a couple of years ago. Over Christmas my son made me watch Strangers on a Train (which I also enjoyed immensely). Seems like time to turn to the books.


    1. I don’t know about Strangers on a Train (whoops, nearly typed Snakes on a Plane there!) but if you liked the Highsmith film you should still enjoy the novel, Simon.


  3. another great review, Chris. Highsmith certainly liked her darkly complex male leads, didn’t she – her anti heroes. Doesn’t necessarily make them likeable, but does make them interesting. Another book to look our for, darn it! 🙂


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