CULTURE

Secrets and mysteries lie at the heart of ‘The Guest’

Vangelis Hatziyiannidis is one of those multitalented people who seem to move with ease from one profession to another. After studying law and theater and working as an actor, he produced two well-received novels and has a collection of short stories due out next year. Oh, and he writes plays, presumably in his spare time. His first novel, «The Four Walls,» won acclaim from readers, critics and other writers for its graceful prose and intriguing plot. Two loners, a man and a woman, each with their own secrets, set up house but not a relationship in a secluded farm belonging to the man. Superb honey They manufacture superb honey according to a secret recipe. Just before the honey becomes famous, the woman ventures into the outside world and meets with a fatal accident, disappointing some readers, including this one, who thought it was far too soon to kill off someone who promised to be the most interesting character. Her daughter and the recipe are left in the man’s care. When the man is captured and imprisoned in a monastery by an abbot who wants him to divulge his secret, the daughter disappears in search of her father, uncovering brutal truths from the past. The plot takes further twists and turns, claiming another victim who hoped to get his hands on the secret recipe which also disappears. Hatziyiannidis’s second novel, «The Guest,» boasts the same supple prose and again displays the author’s love of mystery and fascination with the behavior of people in confined spaces. There is a concealed room, a secret grave, and death in «The Guest,» yet it is not a thriller in the usual sense. Rather it is a novel in which secrets and mysteries unfold and overlap, where the narrator unravels the secrets of his hosts while only partially revealing his own. The naive young narrator, a student of archaeology, is invited by an enigmatic group of older people to spend two weeks in a hotel so they can get to know him, something they do regularly with strangers who interest them. He agrees. The visit is all-found, and he will earn the welcome equivalent of five months’ rent to boot. And his curiosity is piqued. He’s not quite sure why they have chosen him. They say they were impressed by his performance on a television quiz show when he knew the answer to a difficult question. At the hotel he has meetings with the group, singly and alone, as they probe his ideas and past. The narrator sometimes feels scorned or bested by his interlocutors, but nothing untoward happens. He tries to elicit information about the group from Stelios, a young man who works at the hotel with his father, who is linked to the hotel’s original owner, father of the group’s unofficial leader. The chance discovery of a name and dates written on the bottom of a drawer in the wardrobe of his room arouses his curiosity about the fate of the guests who preceded him. The later discovery of a concealed room furnishes grim evidence. Years later, piecing scraps of information together, he makes sense of the whole story – the part played in it by the young woman he initially assumes to be Stelios’s girlfriend, the shady pasts of the hotel’s original owner and some of the group, and the gruesome fate of one of his predecessors. It is not events that dominate «The Guest,» but a sense of mysteries shrouded within mysteries, of secrets that are eventually revealed but whose disclosure does not necessarily confer release or redemption. Though the reader knows, or seems to know, from the outset that the narrator has survived to tell the tale, the atmosphere of foreboding is ever-present. One wants to warn him: «Don’t go into that room. Don’t get onto that boat – not with that woman.» He goes ahead and comes to no harm, but the tension keeps mounting. The novel is ostensibly a straightforward account of the narrator’s experiences. But his asides and his comments on how he has ordered or accentuated details draw attention to the self-conscious construction of narrative, the unreliability of memory and the relation of fiction to reality. On reconstructing the past from memory, the narrator comments, «I’ve ended up believing that the truth itself changes and slowly becomes what we remember, not what it was.» The setting is detailed but not precisely identified, a hotel in an out-of-the-way location, somewhere in Greece. This description encapsulates some of the book’s themes and illustrates the angle of its approach. «Once darkness fell, it looked as if the upper floor of the hotel was cut off from the rest of the building and had become self-contained. Whichever window you looked out of, trees surrounded the place, the same trees whose dark shapes screened the hotel from the gaze of passers-by, and they changed – I’ll say something poetic now – into a green, foamy cloud upon which the hull of the Aino reclined. That’s what it looked like. Naturally the trees were in the same place as they were by day; that didn’t change, but by night, with all the colored lights from the bars and restaurant below, they acquired another dimension. They turned into something else: a cloud. Besides, rather than disrupting this otherworldly feeling, the voices, the music, the noise of the motorbikes intensified it. Because the hubbub that reached your ears from the road seemed like a distant echo of life, completely alien to what your eyes could see and thus a further indication that you were in an inaccessible place, cut off from the other world, the real one.» Significant distance It is that slight but significant distance from the real world, that realm situated somewhere between what we know and what might be that the writer excels in conjuring up. We see a story being told, the process of selection and framing being imposed on the raw material of memory, and the author of the whole project outside that, pulling the strings and orchestrating the larger mystery. Hatziyiannidis sets his characters in a confined space, much like a stage, to act out their parts in the spotlight. But nobody is quite what they seem, an element that recurs at the heart of Hatziyiannidis’s one-act play, the monologue «Metamfiesi» («Disguise»). A woman who spent her early life poor and pretending to be rich, spends the rest of it rich and pretending to be poor. The agency of her translation from one state to the other is a theft she commits after breaching someone else’s privacy and discovering treasure concealed in a shoe box. In «The Guest,» uncovering mysteries is likened to the process of writing, as the leader of the group of four tells the narrator: «Instead of providing the information at the outset, the writer hides it behind various veils, making the reader lift them one by one so as to feel the satisfaction of each step bringing them closer to the secret kernel. And those cunning writers know that very well.» What can we expect from this author’s new collection of stories? That’s a secret. This is an edited version of a paper presented in Halkidiki at the meeting of Greek novelists, European editors and literary critics organized by the National Book Center of Greece, May 30-31. The author Vangelis Hatziyiannidis was born in 1967 in Serres and lives in Athens. He studied law at Athens University and drama at the Veakis school. For three years he worked as an actor, appearing in productions by Theodoros Terzopoulos, Pepi Economopoulou, Yiannis Tsarouchis, Minoas Volanakis, Stamatis Fasoulis and the Morphes theater company. His first novel, «The Four Walls» (published by To Rodakio), won the Diavazo literary magazine’s prize for the best new writer in 2001 and has been translated into French, Italian and Spanish. His one-act play «Disguise» was one of a series of theatrical monologues performed during the Cultural Olympiad in 2003. His second novel, «The Guest» (To Rodakio), came out in 2004. He has published short stories in newspapers and magazines. The French edition of «The Four Walls» won the Laure Bataillon Prize for the best foreign book and best translation of the year.