Hav. Comprising Last Letters from Hav [and] Hav of the Myrmidons by Jan Morris.
London: Faber and Faber, 2006. vii, 301 pp. £16.99
Reviewed by Henry Wessells
Last Letters from Hav (1985) by the celebrated travel writer Jan Morris had been
for some time on my list of books To Be Read Soon. I knew of the book as a successful
narrative of a visit to an imaginary port city. Most recently, I had again been
meaning To Read It Soon, after some digging in the author's much, much
earlier portrait of The Hashemite Kings (1959) for material connected with the
vexillology of the Arab Revolt. Morris has always been an engaging writer willing
to travel to unusual places and the idea of Hav seemed promising. My intentions
failed to keep pace with events. Hav reprints the 1985 novel with a new, second
visit to the imaginary port city and an afterword by the author.
Last Letters from Hav, Six Months in 1985 (as the sectional title
reads) is a
graceful and fluid account of the author's residence in the autonomous
enclave of Hav, a port with unique and unusual geographical, political, historical,
ethnological, linguistic, cultural, architectural, and ecological characteristics.
The location is never quite specified, but there is a flavor of the eastern Mediterranean
in the intersections of Greek, Crusader, Muslim, Venetian, Russian, British,
and Turkish histories (with dashes of Chinese and Italian for spice). For a sense
of the imaginative range, think of a few of the various political anomalies of
pre-1945 Europe (and beyond): Trieste, Gibraltar, the Panama Canal Zone, Port
Arthur, with the literary landscapes of the Corfu of My Family and Other
Animals by Gerald Durrell, the Tangier/Interzone of William Burroughs' novels,
Ballard's Vermilion Sands , the tropical cities of Graham Greene's
novels, the decaying city of Ernst Jünger's Auf den Marmorklippen ,
even Austin Tappan Wright's Islandia . These texts are not cited as influences
but to evoke the complexity of the picture of Hav that emerges. I loved the "snow
raspberries", an impossible delicacy that ripens one day each year. There
are splendidly contrived, telling details beyond number.
A Fantasy of Historiography
Narratives of travel have been part of literary activity from the days of Marco
Polo and John Mandeville though George Anson and Lemuel Gulliver to the present.
Distinguishing fact from fiction is often a doubtful task, for what is true artistically
may not always be judicially. I have written before of If It Had Happened
Lapses into Imaginary History , edited by J. C. Squire (1932), and the pleasures
of Philip Guedalla's contribution, "If the Moors in Spain had Won." One
recent piece of travel fiction that Morris' description of Hav recalled
to mind is "Visit Port Watson !" in Semiotext(e) SF (1989), a putative
account of the libertarian commonwealth of Sonsorol. It is merely a guidebook
whimsy, where Last Letters from Hav is a critical fiction that engages with hundreds
of years of travel writing.
The fabric of name-dropping and anecdote is essential to the structure of the
novel. To learn a lost aphorism of Mark Twain, a new couplet of Cafavy, or an
undocumented episode in the life of Sigmund Freud, would be rewarding eno