Jan Morris is one of the most familiar names in British travel writing, so I was surprised to find a new work by her that I did not know, Last Letters from Hav. The New York Review Books Original edition – Hav – has a stupendous cover image that relates to the sequel, Hav of the Myrmidons, published in 2005 in a double edition that kept me absorbed and delighted for several evenings of reading.
Hav is a city state situated on a south-facing Mediterranean peninsula barred from the main continent by a large range of mountains called the Escarpment, through which the railway descends through tunnels to the city terminus. The city and its ports are also surrounded by low hills, and the curious lack of development of the low-lying land is down to the prevalence of salt marshes.
The city of Hav is a delightful mixture of architecture and history, and seems to have been visited by all the major names in European history, art and politics, from Saladin onwards. The relics of Russian colonisation sit happily beside those of Ottoman, Venetian, French and British attempts at ownership, yet its lingua franca is English, for no reason that anyone can find out. The British presence there is not a particularly happy or lavish one, whereas the presence of a discreetly incognito Caliph and an active intellectual life in the Athenaeum have a far more vigorous effect on the city’s cultural and political life.
Outside the city itself is the large new development of the Casino, an exclusive resort where all the really glamorous tourists come on their yachts and stay until satiated or recovered. The Chinese settlement of Yuan Wen Kao, further along the coast, is the clue to who really owns Hav: Chinese investment is everywhere, and has been since the days of Marco Polo.
Jan Morris visits Hav for several months, wandering the city and meeting its people, until her growing sense of unease leads to flight as the city’s life begin to collapse. She drives up through the mountains and abandons her car in order to catch the last train to leave the state. She turns to have one more look at the city, and sees the warships arriving over the horizon.
On her return to Hav, twenty years later, Morris is the guest of the new government, and with her prized blue card is free to return to the old city and try to find the places and people that she had once known. To her surprise her earlier book on Hav is simultaneously well-known and also banned. A key passage where she had speculated on the origins of Hav has become a centrepiece in the new Havian political ideology, yet no-one in Hav may read anything of the rest of the book.
On its first publication, Last Letters from Hav led many people to have arguments with travel agents who could not find cheap flights or supply train tickets to the city, and I expect that many atlases (this was pre-internet) were scoured looking for Hav’s exact location. I think it’s probably on the Aegean coastline, with convenient access for the Venetians and Lebanese, and a land route from St Petersburg, as she specifies in the book. For of course Last Letters from Hav and Hav of the Myrmidons are fiction, an excellent spoof and allegory of European settlement and political renewal amid the constancy of human nature. They add to my collection of authors breaking free of genre with excellent new perspectives, in territories, and bookshelves, in which they are not usually found. Ursula Le Guin wrote the Introduction to the 2005 double edition, which you can read here. I don’t agree with her on all points, and I am not convinced that Last Letters from Hav and Hav of the Myrmidons are science fiction as she says, but they are certainly outstanding examples of counterfactual speculative writing, and a terrific read.