Friday, July 4, 2014

To Hav and Hav Not: Jan Morris's Uncommon Novel on the Sum of All Travels



            Everybody has lived in Hav. The Greeks, the Arabs, Turks, Russians, Italians, French, Germans. Even the Chinese still operate a fishing pier left over from their furthest Western expansion. The English maintain an Agent, who naturally assumes that all information is classified. A secretive medieval heresy called the Cathars meet in underground quarters resembling catacombs. We don't understand why until author Jan Morris adds a brief sequel -- 20 years after her brilliant fiction "Last Letters from Hav" was published in 1985 -- depicting life in the sterile, colorless, dystopic "new" Hav.
            The old Hav's s indigenous people live in caves, though some of the men work at the harbor, and protect the bears. In the misty past, the legends of this hard to locate somewhere that is both east and west, Europe and Asia, present and past go back to the Myrmidons, the Ancient Greek warriors who fought with Achilles in the Trojan War. Does this mean that Hav is the successor to Troy?
            Greeks founded this place, one of her informants tell the novel's narrator, a travel writer who appears to be a stand-in for Morris, who is herself an astute, highly respected travel writer. But when she tracks down a surviving Greek community, its members are polite and colorless. "We're not Greeks any more," they confess to her.
            Arabs built this place, another local informant tells her in the confiding, but ultimately elusive manner of the city's troop of amateur historians. But then Crusaders took it over and built a castle. An Armenian trumpeter still climbs to its highest point each dawn to play a lament for its knights who fell defending the city from invaders, a notion that suggested to me a reprise of the fall of Constantinople.
            The twentieth century left its heavy fingerprints as well. Oh, there were Fascists in Hav, some say, and the local Germans opposed them. Mussolini however was welcomed by the Italian consulate. Others say, 'Communists were here' and White Russians. And every early 20th century figure you can think of, royalty, decadent rich, politician or intellectual put in an appearance. Freud visited Hav, as did T.E. Lawrence and Hemingway. Claims and counter-claims dispute an incognito visit by Hitler.  
            The city-state of Hav is governed by a tripartite commission established by the League of Nations, which made the German Wiemar Republic one of its protectors. Other survivors from the city's "old Europe," Ottoman and Middle Eastern zeitgeist include a pretender caliph, heir to the 1,300-year religious office at the head of Islam abolished by the Turks when Ataturk overthrew the Ottomans and established the modern Turkish state. The caliph is an urbane man careful about his dealings with the outside world because, he hints, he has enemies.
            Telephones and a little radio get through to this place that time forgot, but Hav presents as the last place on earth untouched by instantaneous communication, mass media, and modern transportation (also, interestingly, by American interests). No airports. You reach the city only by a train that travels a tunnel cut through mountain.
            My lasting impression, months after reading the book, is that Hav is the place where representatives of various versions of the Mediterranean past take Morris's narrator aside and say "Let me tell you what Hav was like when we were really the place to be..." Things were so much more -- interesting, provocative, promising, elegant, urbane, baroque -- back then.
            Hav is the objective correlative for the nostalgia that the earth's deeply rooted communities feel for more vital days. The narrator's informants tell her about the city's brilliant occasions, the parties thrown by celebrities of the Belle Epoque, the pre and post World War I periods (a time recently mocked up by West Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel"), but also its unique bizarre traditions such as the annual race over the city's rooftops and castle walls in which all hale young men must participate, even though some lose their lives.
            In the brief sequel ("Hav of the Myrmidons"), published in 2005, Morris's narrator returns to the new Hav created after a mysterious military "Intervention" placed the mysterious Cathars in charge. Everything old and charming has been destroyed and been replaced by a super-modern, sterile efficiency of gleaming towers and resort life for the 1 percent. The new people she meets are exemplified by the English tourists who love the new, sterile city because "it's exactly what we're used to" -- a devastating critique of the whole tourism project. The new Hav still has mysteries and hints of conspiracy but like (I suspect) most of the book's readers I so much preferred the older one.

(You can read Ursula Le Guin's brilliant intro to the current edition of "Hav" at:
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/jun/03/travel.travelbooks.

(A stimulating analysis of the book by Laleh Khalili recently got me thinking about "Hav" again: http://thegamming.org/2014/06/21/imaginary-cities/ )