Friday, February 17, 2012

Journey to a strange land

In 1985, renowned travel writer Jan Morris spent six months in the mazelike Middle Eastern city of Hav. She got to know the mysterious city a little, and wrote a book about it called Last Letters From Hav.

She describes Hav’s ancient crusader castle, which Saladin conquered while an Armenian trumpeter played a lament from the battlements. She describes the Armenian trumpeter who still played to greet every dawn. She describes the even more ancient Greek acropolis, and the island community where Greeks still live, separated from the mainland by a huffing steam ferry. The Arabic seaport and marketplace, from whence Venetian traders once secured their hold on the spice trade of the eastern Mediterranean. Its onion-domed administrative buildings, built by the Russians, to oversee their only (regrettably shallow) Mediterranean port, as well as their summer homes in Little Yalta. Then there's New Hav, the League of Nations experiment in multicultural governance, during which Italians, French, and Germans cooperated to govern the city until this tenuous system fell apart during World War II. She describes the cave-dwelling aboriginal mountain people, rumored to be Celts. I could go on and on. It's utterly fascinating.

War arrived in Hav in the summer of 1985, forcing Morris to flee, and destroying much of the strange and secretive city that she loved.

Last Letters From Hav won critical acclaim upon its publication in 1986. Now a new volume, simply entitled Hav, has re-published that fascinating book, coupled with a new work: Hav of the Myrmidons, in which Morris recounts her rare visit to Hav in 2005. She compares the city before and after its transformational 1985 revolution.

Are you wondering where Hav is, exactly? So did people when Last Letters From Hav was originally published; readers contacted their travel agents, and were nonplussed to discover that they couldn't go there. Not because of the war; because it's fictional.

This detailed, complex travel memoir is actually an unusual, riveting sort of novel, about a place that feels extraordinarily real but is as imaginary as Middle-Earth or Narnia.

Or, almost that imaginary. Undeniably a stunning work of creativity, Hav is an impressive work of scholarship, too. To seamlessly embed a fictitious city in the real history of a real region - to describe its poetry, its wildflowers, its culture and its conflicts in a way that don't seem to contradict anything that we know - that's kind of amazing.

Hav is not quite like anything else you've ever read, and it’s wonderful.

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