September 2011

Benjamin Taylor


Hav by Jan Morris

William Gibson writes of "a prose-city, a labyrinth, a vast construct the reader learns to enter by any one of a multiplicity of doors... It turns there, on the mind's horizon, exerting its own peculiar gravity... It is a literary singularity." This city seems to exist outside of time, yet moves within it. One can never be sure.

Gibson was writing about the fictional city of Bellona from Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren, yet his words apply equally -- if not more so -- to another fictional city: that of Hav, the singular creation of the renowned and prolific Welsh travel writer, historian, and novelist Jan Morris.

Morris brought Hav into the world in 1985 as Last Letters From Hav, short-listed for that year's Man Booker Prize. She returned to Hav in 2006 with Hav of the Myrmidons, a single volume with a reprinting of the original Last Letters, which was a finalist for the 2007 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Now, the New York Review of Booksis bringing that combined volume to American readers under its Classics imprint.

Hav is a work of fiction unlike any other I've read. Narrated by the character Jan Morris, Hav unfolds entirely as a travel narrative, as seemingly veridical as anything Paul Theroux or Lawrence Durrell would pen. In fact, upon its publication, readers overwhelmed Morris inquiring where exactly Hav could be found, how to get there, whether a visa was necessary or not. Even the Royal Geographical Society wanted to know, according to Morris's epilogue.

Accordingly, the novel begins with Morris's arrival in Hav, itself hazily located somewhere on the eastern Mediterranean. She explores the city, a register of millennia of human history, founded by migratory Celtic tribes or ancient Ionians, perhaps by Achilles himself. Conquered in turn by Arabs, who held it until the Crusades intervened for a century, it served as the fulcrum of the Silk Road for four hundred years, at which point it passed into the hands of the Seljuk Turks, the British Empire for a short time, the Russian Empire until the Revolution, and a Tripartite Mandate of France, Italy, and Germany between the wars.

Its onetime visitors and residents represent a veritable who's who of world history and culture: Ibn Battuta, Hemingway, Diaghilev and Nijinsky, Mann, Freud, Cavafy, Churchill, Joyce, maybe Hitler, though that's far from certain. Every faith has a place here: from the Grand Mosque of Malik in the Medina, to the Greek Orthodox church on the small island of San Spiridon, to scattered Buddhist and Hindu temples, a synagogue, and churches of every Christian sect.

The reader follows Morris as she tries to navigate this unreal city, with its multifarious architectural styles, Babel of languages, mélange of smells and sounds. She familiarizes herself with its cafes, its music, its trademark urchin soup and snow raspberries. She attends the Roof Race (which is exactly what it sounds like), and her descriptions of the frenzy of the crowd tearing through the city to follow the athletes running and jumping across alleyways above is among the more riveting parts of the novel.

One could go on for some length and is tempted to, for Morris's prose is so resplendent and exacting in its erudition and craftsmanship. Her knowledge of Mediterranean history and culture shines through on every page, and her attention to seemingly minor details, such as witnessing two elderly Buddhist monks alone in a crowd of merchants purchasing saffron, for instance, preserve the veneer of an "official" travel narrative.

Ultimately, though, Hav is a place utterly fluid, where identity is consistent only in its Heraclitean flux. History swirls around Hav, yet always inchoate, subject to the whims, distortions, and sedimented agendas of countless peoples of countless factions over countless years. And like that other fictional city Bellona, Hav is a mystery in which nothing is as it seems -- or maybe everything is exactly as it seems until it changes into something else, until over time everything possible in human history has already happened, is still happening, and will happen again. Last Letters from Hav, indeed, ends with a cataclysm known as the Intervention, the details of which the reader is never entirely informed.

One is reminded of Borges's "The Library of Babel," and Borges's ghost clearly walks through the streets of Hav. This is mostly implicit in Last Letters From Hav, though Morris does inform the reader that "The maze is so universal a token of Hav, appears so often in legends and artistic references of all kinds, that one comes to take it for granted." According to Morris, "It certainly seems true that if there is one constant factor binding the artistic and creative centuries together, it is an idiom of the impenetrable... [The artists of Hav] have loved the opaque more than the specific, the intuitive more than the rational."

The connection to the concept of the labyrinth, both physical and metaphysical, is made far more explicit in Hav of the Myrmidons, in which Morris returns to a post-Intervention Hav that has been forever altered. Gone are the domes, spires, meandering streets, and chaotic din of old Hav, which have been replaced by a Chinese-financed "brand-new metropolis of mirror-glass, steel and concrete, metallic, regimented." The old city has been cut off from its garden island of Lazaretto, which has become a sort of contemporary Dubai -- a glittering playground of luxury designed for foreign nouveaux riches aptly renamed Lazaretto! Morris soon finds, however, that the seeming regimentation and rationalization of the city she knew has in no way reduced its vertiginous complexity.

The entropic despotism of old Hav has been replaced by a nightmare surveillance state styling itself the Holy Myrmidonic Republic, the symbol of which is a two-thousand-foot tower soaring above the resort of Lazaretto! and adorned at its spire by a giant illuminated M, which continually changes color. The new Hav, as is clear to Morris, is a complete simulacrum of a farce. The HMR prevents tourists from entering the old city (Morris has a two-week visa with an exemption, thanks to some old acquaintances), monitors every conversation, produces genetically-modified snow raspberries (in an Atwoodian touch, renamed "Havberries") with imported labor from Uzbekistan and Afghanistan to can and export, and has rewritten and whitewashed its jumbled history to present the most sanitary face to potential foreign investors.

While Hav of the Myrmidons feels a little too obviously polemic -- and perhaps that's because the current dystopian moment has witnessed Atwood's two most recent novels, The Hunger Games trilogy, and Super Sad True Love Story, not to mention the events of the six years intervening -- Morris's prose remains crisp and effusive as in the earlier work. If the allegory of Hav is that identity and history are just as malleable and in flux as topography, the two halves complement each other quite effectively.

Of course, Morris herself says in the epilogue that even she doesn't know whether an essential allegory of Hav exists, which is most likely the point. At any rate, this volume contains a lifetime worth of sensual experience, and some of the most luminous and unforgettable writing I have ever encountered.

Hav by Jan Morris
NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1590174494
320 pages