Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Hav by Jan Morris

Morris, most everyone knows, is one of the premier travel writers of the 20th Century. She went everywhere, and wrote with such interest and erudition about the places she visited that one reads her works simply because she writes better than anyone else. One publisher gave her the opportunity to write fiction, and Morris created an invented place, Hav, to which many folks immediately wanted to book a flight.

This novel is composed of two parts: in Last Letters from Hav Morris describes for us her first glimpse of the Protectorate of Hav, its residents, flora, fauna, religions, and origins. In Hav of the Myrmidons written twenty years later, Morris returns to a much-changed Protectorate. In the Epilogue to the combined novel called simply Hav published by nyrb, Morris tells us that the allegories of old Hav have been transmuted from a place of “overlapping ancient cultures but with familiar signposts based in history” to allegories of “civic prodigies…hitherto inconceivable and themselves all but fictional still.”

Hav is an international protectorate near the Black Sea and on the Mediterranean. Every major nation had its representatives there, ensconced in (formerly) grand buildings that carried a storied history. When Morris visited in the 1980’s, Hav was rundown and a tiny bit disreputable, but the glamour of earlier days still shone through.

Morris shares her first impressions upon her arrival at night (monotonous and cold, stark and forbidding) and those again modified by clear morning light (bright, colorful, polyglot). She stays several months, buys an automobile, and travels by ferry to outlying islands. She meets the important citizens and legal representatives of countries occupying national concessions in Hav and witnesses the major celebrations—the coming of the snow raspberries and the Roof Race. Her visits to The Iron Dog, and The House of the Chinese Master (“the most astonishing aesthetic experience Hav can offer”) are accompanied by marvelously detailed descriptions composed of wonder and awe.

The novel is just a travel memoir, a very good one with historical references and informative notes about where to find the best food, until Morris comes to her discussion of the British Concession and its history in the province. Morris seems to become much more pointed in her references when she describes the British consul, his wife, and English interests in establishing a base in Hav. Morris includes notes General C.J. Napier wrote to his wife about Hav: “A dreadful hole—worse than Sind!” and “Oh what a foretaste of hell this is.” The British always kept some distance from true involvement in the life of Hav (they “loathed the Protectorate”), created buildings that looked quite like those created in India for their comfort, and were reputed to house only spies in their offices.

We learn that celebrities and leaders from many countries visited Hav in its heyday. Morris’ description of Nijinsky’s visit is particularly poignant, but Hitler and Wagner (at different times, naturally), George Sand and Chopin, Kim Philby, and the shadowy Sir Edmund Backhouse, scholarly sinologist and baronet, were all said to have stayed there at some time or another.

An escarpment just to the north of Hav was home to a cave-dwelling tribe of troglodytes who never settled in the city proper but who form “a still living bridge between the city and its remotest origins.” Their language has a fragile connection with the Celtic, but is still incomprehensible to everyone outside their group. It is said when they first saw the peninsula upon which Hav now sits, surrounded by blue sea, they called the place “Summer,” or hav in the surviving Celtic language of the West.

The underlying political structure of Hav was a shambles of competing interests and insufficiently expansionist beliefs which added to the rich confusion of organic growth in the labyrinthine city. Hav was likewise a rich stew of religions, all in stages of isolation from their original tenets. One mysterious group called Cathars of Hav was composed of secret members of the community and whose ceremonies and meetings involve robes and chants in underground locations. The Cathars are said to trace their history to the Crusades and their beliefs to Manicheanism, or the dualistic cosmology between the forces of good and evil, darkness and light. This group alone gives Morris pause in her ramblings about the city, but she does not spend much capital thinking about them before she is advised by the British Consul to leave the city in haste.

Morris ends Last Letters from Hav on a note of uncertainty, with low-flying war planes streaking over the city. Morris sees warships on the near horizon as she pauses on an overlook near where she will abandon her vehicle and catch a train away from Hav.

Morris uses the word “maze” to describe Hav more than once, leading us to think she meant, among other things, to suggest “a-maze…ing” Hav. In 2005 Morris was invited to revisit Hav. Her later map of the city looks completely different from the earlier one, with many of the wonderful places she described razed. Now the Myrmidon Tower dominates the landscape: “a virtuoso display of unashamed, unrestricted, technologically unexampled vulgarity” upon which is emblazoned the state emblem of the Republic, the letter ‘M’ flashing in sequential colors of red, yellow, green and blue and overlaid against an Achillean helmet outlined in gold. When Morris ascends the Tower, she discovers the nearby newly constructed Lazaretto! Resort (“the name is written with an exclamation mark because we believe you will find it a truly exclamatory experience”) is, in fact, built like a maze when viewed from above. The suites are named for places once a part of the old Hav before the Intervention in 1985.

As luck would have it, the first people Morris interacts with in the New Hav are a “very English middle-aged couple” whose advice “don’t experiment too much with the local stuff” seems designed to remind Morris however things have changed, much has stayed the same. But then: “The thing is one feels so safe here. The security’s really marvelous, it’s all so clean and friendly, and well, everything we’re used to really.” And that turns out to be the most frightening and curious thing.

The troglydytes who originally named Hav are no longer living in whitewashed caves on the escarpment but have been moved to barracks near the airport where the menfolk work on airport construction. While many Morris spoke with seemed pleased with the central heating and the comfortable living, one man pointed out that they were experiments of “ethnic engineering,” given a few certainties in exchange for their unique though hardscrabble culture.

Morris must leave after only six days this time, while she was forced to leave after six months on her first visit. Things have changed quite a lot and the menace is palpable. People are afraid to speak openly for a very tight grip by the Cathars of Hav hear all and see all.

This science fiction reminds us what a woman of the world Ms. Morris is, for she has caught the national character of each resident group in Hav quite clearly. But it is her certainty that events and locales have really lost their historical basis and point of origin is one that stays with us long after we put her book down. The world is renewing itself, and has become strange to even one so practiced in the art of travel.
”The great ‘M’! ‘M’ for what? ‘M’ really for Myrmidon, or ‘M’ for Mammon? For Mohammed the Prophet? For Mani the Manichaean? ‘M’ for McDonald’s, or Monsanto, or Microsoft? ‘M’ for Melchik? ‘M’ for Minoan? ‘M’ for Maze?...’M’ for Me?”
Again from the Epilogue, Morris says “A whole world…has come into being since I wrote Last Letters from Hav. New states have emerged, and new kinds of cities suddenly erupted.” The world is a new thing in this century, and history doesn’t always provide a signpost. Morris, the great traveler, is perplexed and uneasy.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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