I have never, in my life, read a book two times in a row. Until I read Hav. This was possible because Hav is not a novel in the ordinary sense. It’s a travel memoir to a fictional place that could easily exist; it’s a meditation on East meeting West, on history and culture and modernity; it’s about being a stranger in somewhere simultaneously familiar and alien. And it has some of the most wonderful prose I’ve come across.
This section from Hav illuminates many of the aspects that make the book so wonderful.
[The boats] often use their sails, and when one comes into the harbour on a southern wind, canvas bulging, flag streaming, keeling gloriously with a slap-slap of waves on its prow and its bare brown-torsoed Greeks exuberantly laughing and shouting to each other, it is as though young navigators have found their way to Hav out of the bright heroic past. (p66)
This. It’s beautiful, for a start. It suggests that conjunction of somewhere existing both in the present and, somehow, in the past that makes Hav so intriguing. And it’s quoted back at its author in the second part of the book, as an indication of her own understanding of Hav.
(We’re all about the meta.)
Two thirds of the book was written and published in the 1980s. According to Ursula le Guin, who wrote the introduction, it led to people going to their travel agents looking to book a ticket to Hav because it was so convincing. Now, it really is convincing, but at the same time there are aspects that make it quite clear that Hav is a fiction. Like the fact that you’ve never seen it on a map, maybe? I was confused by that until I look Jan Morris up, and discovered that she has written many actual travel books (under that name and as James Morris). So I concede that perhaps if you knew her earlier work, you could be forgiven for some confusion if not quite that much. Anyway, the last third was written in the early 21st century, and sees Morris going back to Hav after the Intervention – which was just starting as she left last time. And this allows Morris to explore a whole other aspect of culture and development.
“Last Letters from Hav” are entries written between March and August, with Morris arriving in Hav at the start and being bustled out as trouble brews at the end. In between, she does what any travel writer does: she stays in interesting places, she visits the important and not-so-important places in the city, she talks to people, she reminisces about what other people have said about the place. I’ve been having a great deal of difficulty writing this review because the books is absolutely busting at the scenes with themes, with commentary, with historical (a)musings. There’s multiculturalism and colonialism and identity – the losing and finding and historical nature of and doubt around. There’s appropriation on a massive scale – see previous note – and getting on with the business of life. There’s ordinary mystery and profound mystery, religion and politics and architecture and this book had me in RAPTURES. Can you tell?
Hav is a city-state in a world that really doesn’t have them any more. It’s got an uneasy relationship with Turkey, its only (?) land neighbour, but a seemingly thriving one with certain Arab nations and perhaps the Chinese. It’s basically meant to be somewhere like the Dardanelles – although the geography isn’t quite right – because it’s a big deal that this was where Achilles and his Myrmidons came ashore. And the Spartans too, apparently. And, later, Arab merchants, and Venetian merchants, and it’s one of very few venerable Chinese merchant settlements outside of Asia. See how Morris twists history and makes it just believable? There really were moments where I could believe this was real. Because her discussion of history is modern, too: the Brits wanted to colonise it; Hav was shared by France, Italy and Germany under a League of Nations mandate; Hitler might have visited, and Hemingway did. Morris talks to people who are flotsam from this era; and also to a man claiming to be the 125th Caliph. Also a casino manager, members of the ‘troglodyte’ race who live in the nearby mountains, the local philosophers, and some bureaucrats. She visits odd monuments, the Conveyor Bridge (I admit I had to ask someone whether that was actually possible, because I was teetering on the edge of What Do I Believe?), and the Electric Ferry. I don’t believe that this book could have been written by anyone other than an established travel writer, because her eye and ear for (even imaginary) detail is breathtaking.
The second section is much shorter and deals with only a week or so, some two decades later when Morris is invited back to Hav after the Intervention. “Hav of the Myrmidons” does all of the same things as “Last Letters,” with additional meditation on the nature of change and tourism and the impossibility of an outsider ever really understanding the internal workings of a foreign city. There’s also the inevitable nature of change, and the sinister side of globalisation with imported labour and native populations made to relocate – which, intriguingly, is given a possibly positive spin. Morris’ books is either revered or believed to be banned in Hav, depending on who she speaks to (it’s one of the bureaucrats who reveres it that quotes the passage above at her, as part of the reason for why she was asked back). But things have changed. Most of the glorious many-centuries-in-one-place nature of former Hav is gone, replaced with new and forbidding and disorienting architecture. Like the massive Myrmidon tower, surmounted by an M – but no one really knows who or what the Myrmidons are, or meant to be, in this context. Some things of old Hav have been retained, but sanitised, bent to a new understanding of the world. Tourists are allowed, but only in a defined space – which leads to another bit I wanted to quote, because I think it’s an indication of a travel writer’s despair:
“The thing is… one feels so safe here. The security’s really marvellous, it’s all so clean and friendly, and, well, everything we’re used to really. We’ve met several old friends here, and just feel comfortable in this environment. We shall certainly be coming again, won’t we darling?” “Oh, a hundred percent. I think it’s bloody marvellous what they’ve achieved, when you remember what happened here.” (p196)
Thus spake an older English couple with no intention of leaving the resort.
Hav puts me in mind of China Mieville’s The City and the City, and Christopher Priest’s The Islanders, both of which do a similar thing with inventing places that ring so amazingly true. The Priest is clearly fictional but written as a travel book; the Mieville is a fiction but set in a city that purports to be real. I guess Hav conflates the two.
This review gets nowhere near what I really want to say about Hav. I am so glad that it exists, and that I have read it. And now I will force it into the hands of anybody I possibly can… although I admit to some trepidation that maybe other people won’t like it as much as I do. (I haven’t been able to look at any Goodreads reviews for that reason.) I may have used the word intriguing too many times, and I may have given in to hyperbole, but I don’t care. I love this book and want to hold it to my heart FOREVER.
(Another of the books that has been languishing on my shelves for far too long, unread. WHAT OTHER GEMS ARE WAITING FOR ME??)
You can get Hav from Fishpond.