A new Troy?

pagoda Jan Morris Hav:
comprising Last Letters from Hav;
Hav of the Myrmidons

Faber & Faber 2006

Despite irritating minor typos (not even corrected in the paperback edition) this is a wonderful fiction obsessing on dualities: ancient and modern, East and West, Light and Dark, land and sea, transparency and the occluded. The addition of Hav of the Myrmidons in 2006 to the 1985 Last Letters from Hav (presumably written as if to Morris’ partner Elizabeth) adds to that sense of duality: as the earlier Letters ended a half year of somnolent unreality with the brutal suddenness of the Intervention, so does the mirroring second half of Hav end a six day tour of puzzling contradictions with a brusque departure. Hav appears to be an independent state on a peninsula of Asia Minor, close enough to the known site of Troy to have been considered, Morris suggests, a contender; like Troy it has been coveted by other nation states, squabbled over by invading armies and temporarily ruled by transient empires.

Hav itself is like an amalgam of all those liminal territories such as Hong Kong or Trieste that Morris herself has visited for her travelogues, and resonant with echoes of a few other polities such as Istanbul or Malta which have been at the crossroads of cultures. The Hav of the 1980s is a little quaint, a relic of its past histories but decaying in its inertia. While no less Kafkaesque post-9/11 Hav no longer retains its picture postcard attraction: all that has mostly been swept away by the sinister but shadowy forces behind the Intervention, leaving tourists in a modernist enclave and a population that is even more reticent to disclose what, if anything, is controlling Hav. Morris’ persona observes topography and demography alike with poetry and seeming ingenuousness, her descriptive and narrative skills making much of her imaginary land very real and believable. In the 1980s you mourn the imminent passing of an exotic state that has become anachronistic; in the new millennium you despair of the faceless machine that it has become. While Morris gets to meet many of her previous 1986 acquaintances in 2005, she is unable to get to the heart of what Hav has really become, though we can guess that the state has succumbed to the fate of many a nation turned totalitarian and subjected to a cultural revolution.

For anyone remotely interested in history and culture and in dialogue and interaction Morris’ book has much to admire and celebrate. Aided by two outline maps separated by two decades, plus uncredited sketches presumably by Morris herself (the second group clearly being executed in seeming haste), she artlessly delineates the surviving architecture and hinterland of Hav City, blending the rich heritages of the Mediterranean and beyond into what at first seems an idealised backwater jewel surviving on past glories. But Hav then violently metamorphs into another faceless metropolis of thrusting highrise structures, epitomised by the 2000-ft Myrmidonic Tower rivalling anything that Dubai can offer and twice as high as the Eiffel Tower or the London Shard.

Cretan-labyrinthI’ve already mentioned the notion of dualities that permeates Hav: this is underlined by the Manichaean religion of the Cathar sect that emerges in the first part to rule the Holy Myrmidonic Republic in the second. The other notion that saturates the novel is the circular labyrinth, and though Morris never illustrates the exact form that this takes it is clear that it is not the simple unicursal or Cretan labyrinth that we have to imagine; instead we must picture a multicursal maze with numerous dead ends, where often as we seem to be approaching the centre the path veers off confusingly in another direction. And it is in the conjunction of duality and labryrinth that I think we have to find a key to what Hav is about. Morris seems well aware of the contradictions that she encapsulates: gender-reassigned herself, she has veered from active service as a soldier in World War II to reportage as a travel-writer post-surgery. Her mother was English, and she was born in Somerset (perhaps the region referred to in a medieval Latin pun as ‘the Summer Country’); her father was Welsh, however, and she certainly regards herself as Welsh, so it is noteworthy that she surmises that the name of Hav is derived from a pan-Celtic word meaning ‘summer’. The puns don’t just stop there. Morris is of course a common Welsh name, which may owe its popularity not just to medieval Norman influence but also ultimately to the Roman name Mauricius, from maurus meaning Moorish or dark-skinned, and which is thus a wonderfully ambivalent name.

A solution of sorts to the enigma that is Hav may come from the image of the pencil-thin Myrmidonic Tower that ends the novel. Standing moreorless centrally on the Lazaretto island, with its streets deliberately laid out in labyrinthine fashion, the tower looks down on a Borgesian pattern that most resembles the folds of a human brain. At the very close of the final chapter, as Morris flies from Hav for the last time as a persona non grata, she spies the giant letter M at the Tower’s summit “shining there fainter and fainter, smaller and smaller,” and she speculates on what the letter really stands for. Myrmidons, the legendary warriors of Achilles? Manichaean? Maze? “Or, could it possibly be … ‘M’ for Me?” She can’t really be clearer, I think: M is for Morris, the tourist who visits liminal places which exist only in her mind. What a privilege then that she agrees to share her experiences with us.

Review from May 12th 2012, slightly revised

Taipei_101_from_afar
Taipei 101, Taiwan 2004 (Wikimedia Commons): an inspiration for the Myrmidon Tower?
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7 thoughts on “A new Troy?

  1. Reblogged this on calmgrove and commented:

    Here’s a post from just over a year ago, when I’d just got started on this blog. If you liked A Dictionary of Imaginary Places you might find Jan Morris’ Hav an intriguing read.

  2. Ah, you’ve piqued my interest here…somehow I have always intended to read Jan Morris but never got around to it. (I have plenty of liminal places in my mind) 🙂

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