Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Hav by Jan Morris

This book is an allegory, unless it isn't. Or maybe it's two allegories, of different things, written twenty years apart.

What is it an allegory of (if it is at all)? Well, author Jan Morris doesn't say, or even hint. And the introduction by Ursula K. Le Guin denies any whiff of allegory.

So: do you believe the author, even if she's clearly being puckish and more than a little vague? Or a third party with her own opinions and disdain for formal allegory?

Hav presents itself as two different travel narratives. The original Last Letters from Hav is supposedly the letters Morris wrote from this small Eastern Mediterranean principality to some publication, collected into a book soon afterward in 1985. Twenty years later, she returned to a radically changed Hav -- the beginning of that radical change was what made her leave in '85 -- for a week and wrote Hav of the Myrmidons, which first appeared in this omnibus edition. They're both quite short: the whole book is barely three hundred pages.

That's what it says it is. Every allegory has two levels: what it says and what it means.

Hav doesn't actually exist. Morris never quite makes clear where it would be, this small peninsula guarded by a sharp rocky escarpment. It points south, possibly from somewhere in Turkey -- less likely Greece (since then it would point into the Aegean, and it would be harder to aim straight south) or Syria and almost impossibly somewhere on the Black Sea or the Sea of Marmara. But, since it's not real anyway, it can sort-of be in all of those places and none of them. It can have Russian and "Arab" and Greek influences and history -- and even a random Chinese community, because Morris wanted it to.

Hav is the kind of place a travel writer makes up out of the pieces of all of the other places she visited. Maybe not the places she liked best, because Morris isn't that kind of a writer, but not the places she hated most, either. Maybe the places that most intrigued her, the places that were the oddest, quirkiest, most specific. Maybe the places that she wanted to twist a bit to one side or the other, that she wanted to fiddle with in her mind to make them something slightly different. Maybe any or all or none of those things.

(Morris is still alive, and apparently still vital, at the age of 92. Anyone who cares really deeply could try to ask her. I doubt there would be a straight answer, though.)

And the other side of the allegory? What does Hav mean?

Last Letters presents it as one of those quirky, quaint small countries beloved in travel writing -- full of officious bureaucracy and deep secrets and surprising connections to all of the things Morris likes best, a history that is deep and rich and more important than the reader expects. There are hidden currents under the placid surface, of course -- and the ending, in which Morris flees Hav ahead of a mysterious Intervention (presumably by some stronger power, Turkey or the USSR or some less likely nation), makes it clear that those hidden currents were stronger and deeper than Morris-the-character realized.

(Morris is, of course, at least two people in Hav: the writer who made it all up, and the traveler who experiences it.)

Myrmidons drops an older Morris-the-character a more modern, sharper-edged society: I was reminded a bit of late-period Ballard in the emphasis on shiny consumer surfaces, though Morris's manner and affect is miles from the chill of Ballard, and Morris-the-character doesn't fit into the new Hav the way a Ballard protagonist would. This piece feels closer to allegory to me -- or perhaps I'm just closer to that world to begin with, so I can see more of the outlines of Morris's means there.

These two narratives are at least sly commentaries on what travel writers do, and how observation changes what is observed, even if they're not formal allegories. Perhaps that is the allegory, actually: Hav is the Platonic Ideal of the Travel Destination, and Morris-the-character is the equivalent Observer, precipitating out revolution or unrest by her mere presence. And the difference in the two allegories would then be the differences in expectations between 1985 and 2006 -- how the world has changed in that time, and what "we" want out of our travel experiences in those two moments.

What I like about travel narratives, I realized while reading Hav, are the surprises, the interaction of an observer with a real world that does not fit preconceptions and that refuses to follow rules (allegorical or otherwise). Hav is an interesting, unique book -- and I am, as always, fond of fake non-fiction for a lot of reasons -- but the fakeness of the travel narrative was like a constant itch in the back of my skull while reading it: this was exactly the opposite of what I wanted from a book like this.

I think I'm a pretty quirky reader, though. So I try to recommend, or dis-recommend, as clearly as I can, since my guess is that most people are not looking for anything like what I am in a book. Hav is a book in a tiny genre: the fake travel narrative. It doesn't pretend to tell a larger story; it has nothing of the novel about it. It is written entirely as if Hav were a real place, and things much like those that happened in other real places happen in Hav. It's not funny: it is not a joke. Morris is serious, even if she's not going to tell us exactly what her allegories mean.

If it's an allegory at all. Which it may not be.

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