Authors: Jan Morris
JAN MORRIS was born in 1926, is Anglo-Welsh, and lives in Wales. She has written some forty books, including the Pax Britannica trilogy about the British Empire; studies of Wales, Spain, Venice, Oxford, Manhattan, Sydney, Hong Kong, and Trieste; six volumes of collected travel essays; two memoirs; two capricious biographies; and a couple of novelsâbut she defines her entire oeuvre as “disguised autobiography.” She is an honorary D.Litt. of the University of Wales and a Commander of the British Empire.
URSULA K. LE GUIN has published twenty-one novels as well as volumes of short stories, poems, essays, and works for children. Among her novels are
The Left Hand of Darkness
, both winners of the Nebula and Hugo awards.
LAST LETTERS FROM HAV
HAV OF THE MYRMIDONS
URSULA K. LE GUIN
NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS
Last Letters from Hav
was published (and short-listed for the Booker Prize) in 1985, Jan Morris's well-deserved fame as a travel writer, and the unfamiliarity of many modern readers with the nature of fiction, caused unexpected dismay among travel agents. Their clients demanded to know why they couldn't book a cheap flight to Hav. The problem, of course, was not the destination but the place of origin. You couldn't get there, in fact, from London or Moscow; but from Ruritania, or Orsinia, or the Invisible Cities, it was simply a matter of finding the right train.
Now, after twenty years, Morris has returned to Hav, and enhanced, deepened, and marvelously perplexed her guidebook by the addition of a final section called “Hav of the Myrmidons.” To say that the result isn't what the common reader expects of a novel is not to question its fictionality, which is absolute, or the author's imagination, which is vivid and exact.
The story is episodic, entirely lacking in “action” or “plot” of the usual sort; but these supposed narrative necessities are fully replaced by the powerful and gathering direction or intention of the book as a whole. It lacks another supposed necessity of the novel: characters who, while they may represent an abstraction, also take on a memorable existence of their own. Like any good travel writer, Morris talks to interesting people and reports the conversations. And people we met in the first part of the book turn up in the second part to take us about and exhibit in person what has happened to their country; but I confess I barely remembered their names when I met them again. Morris's gift is not portraiture, and her people are memorable not as individuals but as exemplary Havians.
This lack of plot and characters is common in the conventional Utopia, and I expect academics and other pigeonholers may stick
in with Thomas More and company. That is a respectable slot, but not where the book belongs. Probably Morris, certainly her publisher, will not thank me for saying that Hav is in fact science fiction, of a perfectly recognizable type and superb quality. The “sciences” or areas of expertise involved are socialâethnology, sociology, political science, and above all, history. Hav exists as a mirror held up to several millennia of pan-Mediterranean history, customs, and politics. It is a focusing mirror; its intensified reflection sharply concentrates both observation and speculation. Where have we been, where are we going? Those are the questions the book asks. It poses them through the invention of a place not recognized in the atlas or the histories, but which, introduced plausibly and without violence into the existing world, gives us a distanced, ironic, and revelatory view of everything around it. The mode is not satiric fantasy, as in the islands Gulliver visited; it is exuberantly realistic, firmly observant, and genuinely knowledgeable about how things have been, and are now, in Saudi Arabia, or Turkey, or Downing Street. Serious science fiction is a mode of realism, not of fantasy; and
is a splendid example of the uses of an alternate geography. If, swayed by the silly snobbery of pundits as contemptuous of science fiction as they are ignorant of it, you should turn away from
, that would be a shame and a loss.
It is not an easy book to describe. Hav itself is not easy to describe, as the author frequently laments. As she takes us about with her in her travels of discovery, we grow familiar with the delightful if somewhat incoherent Hav of 1985. We climb up to its charming castle, from which the Armenian trumpeter plays at dawn the great lament of Katourian for the knights of the First Crusade, the “Chant de doleure pour li proz chevalers qui suent morz.” We visit the Venetian Fondaco, the Casino, the Caliph, the mysterious British Agency, the Kretevs who inhabit caves up on the great Escarpment through which the train, Hav's only land link to the rest of Europe, plunges daily down a zigzag tunnel. We see the Iron Dog, we watch the thrilling Roof-Race. But the more we learn, the greater our need to learn more. A sense of things not understood, matters hidden under the surface, begins to loom; even, somehow, to menace. We have entered a maze, a labyrinth constructed through millennia, leading us back and back to the age of Achilles and the Spartans who built the canal and set up the Iron Dog at the harbor mouth, and before that to the measureless antiquity of the Kretevs, who are friends of the bear. And the maze stretches out and out, too, half around the world, for it seems that Havian poetry was deeply influenced by the Welsh; and just up the coast is the westernmost of all ancient Chinese settlements, which Marco Polo found uninteresting. “There is nothing to be said about Yuan Wen Kuo,” he wrote. “Let us now move on to other places.”
Achilles and Marco Polo aren't the half of it. Ibn Batuta came to Hav, of course, all the great travelers did, and left their comments, diligently quoted by the Havians and Morris. T. E. Lawrence may have discovered a secret mission there; Ernest Hemingway came to fish and to carry off six-toed cats. Hav's glory days of tourism were before the First World War and again after it, when the train zigzagged through its tunnel laden with the cream of European society, millionaires, and right-wing politicians; but whether or not Hitler was actually there for one night is still a matter of dispute. The politics of Hav itself in 1985 were extremely disputable. Its religions were various, since so many great powers of the East and West had governed it over the centuries; mosques and churches coexisted amicably; and indeed the spiritual scene was so innocuous as to appear feebleâa small group of hermits, reputed to spend their days in holy meditation, proved to be cheerfully selfish hedonists who simply enjoyed asceticism. And yet, and yet, there were the Cathars. Late in her first visit, Morris was taken in darkness and great secrecy to witness a sitting of the Cathars of Havâa strange ritual conclave of veiled women and cowled men. In some of them Morris thought she recognized friends, guides, the trumpeter, the tunnel pilot. . .but she could not be sure. She could not be sure of anything.
On her return twenty years later, some things appear to be all too certain. The old Hav is gone, destroyed in an obscure event called the Intervention. The train is gone, a huge airport is under construction. Ships come in to a destination resort called Lazaretto! (the punctuation is part of the name) of the most luxuriously banal kind, where, as a middle-aged lady tourist remarks, one feels so safe. The strange old House of the Chinese Master is a burnt ruin; the new landmark is a huge skyscraper called the Myrmidon Tower, “a virtuoso display of unashamed, unrestricted, technically unexampled vulgarity”. The British Legate is at least as sinister and much slimier than his predecessor, the British Agent. Most of the city has been rebuilt in concrete. The troglodytic Kretev are housed in hygienic villas, and the bears are extinct. The age of postmodernism has arrived, with its characteristically brutal yet insidious architecture and propaganda, its reductionist culture of advertisement and imitation, its market capitalism, its factionalism and religiosity forever threatening terror. Yet we find pretty soon that Hav is still Hav: the maze, the labyrinth, is still there. Even the elevator of the Myrmidon Tower is indirect. Who in fact is running the country? The Cathars? But who are the Cathars? What does the M on the Myrmidon Tower really stand for?
Morris says in the epilogue that if Hav is an allegory, she's not sure what it is about. I don't take it as an allegory at all. I read it as a brilliant description of the crossroads of the West and East in two recent eras, viewed by a woman who has truly seen the world, and who lives in it with twice the intensity of most of us. Its enigmas are part of its accuracy. It is a very good guidebook, I think, to the early twenty-first century.
But what if light and shade should be reversed?
If you press the switch then, will you turn the darkness on?
There can be few people nowadays who do not know the whereabouts of Hav, but when I first went there in the 1980s it seemed an almost chimerical city. Many visitors, of course, had described it in earlier days, marvelling at its curious monuments, pontificating about its history, catching something of its atmosphere in memoirs, novels and poetry â
. . . the green-grey shape that seamen swear is Hav,
Beyond the racing tumble of its foam.
Nobody, however, had written a proper book about the place, at least in modern times. It was almost as though a conspiracy had protected the peninsula from too frank or thorough a description.
But the cataclysm of 1985, known in Hav nowadays as the Intervention, made the name of the place familiar wherever newspapers are read. As it happened, I had arrived there some months before to write a series of literary letters for the magazine
, leaving just as catastrophe struck. When the essays were published in book form I called them
Last Letters from Hav
, because I assumed that the character of the city I had got to know, if not the city itself, must have been obliterated. Hav had seemed to me a little compendium of the world's experience, historically, aesthetically, even perhaps spiritually, and could surely never be the same place again.
Two decades later, when I had resolved to write no more books, I received an unexpected invitation from the Hav League of Intellectuals to revisit the city. I was surprised, because I had heard that
had been banned there, but thinking that it might result in an addendum to my original study, I accepted the offer and went back to Hav in the spring of 2005. I found it astonishingly resuscitated, different in character, certainly, from the city I had known, but hardly less allegorical of feel.
Denied entry to the United Nations in the years after the Intervention, Hav enjoyed diplomatic relations with only a handful of foreign states, stayed aloof to all regional groupings, and as a theocracy severly discouraged contacts with most of the rest of the world. However, in this ambiance of religious fundamentalism and state inhibition, political movements and activists of many kinds had found their way to Hav, and had made it in many ways a paradigm of our twenty-first century zeitgeist.
So in this volume we see the place stereoscopically, so to speak: in the first part through the misty lens of my letters of twenty years ago, in the second part rather more clearly, but still opaquely â for although carefully selected journalists have been able to visit Hav since the Intervention, and many travel magazines have advertised its dazzling tourist resort of Lazaretto, whether by intent or inherence it is still a destination like no other. As a contemporary Havian
-poet has written,