Hav Not


From the cover of Last letters From Hav, by Jan Morris, 1985 edition 

From Full Stop:

Hav is a fictional travel narrative and in it, Morris mixes fact into fiction like mushrooms into scrambled eggs – if you look for the bits of mushroom, you can pick them out of the eggs, but unless you spend a lot of time scraping, you’ll never get all the egg off. When Morris wrote the first half of this novel, published in 1985 under the name Last Letters From Hav, she was so well regarded as a travel writer people didn’t understand the book was fictional and called their travel agents (LOL wut is a travel agent!??!?) to plan vacations to Hav.

Now we can do a quick Google search with the book open next to us. The immediate availability of all common knowledge in contrast to the delicate interplay of real and unreal adds a fourth, subjective, layer to the reading of this novel: what facts you, the reader, know to be true and what facts you, the reader, know to be false.

In Last Letters from Hav, Morris introduces all the splendid peculiarities of Hav the way any travel writer would introduce the splendid peculiarities of a real city. Hav is a mix of cultural influences: Greek, Russian, Turkish, Chinese, and Middle Eastern. New Hav is Western European with separate districts carved out by the French, German, and British. Every year, a bunch of cave dwellers known as the Kretevs harvest a limited supply of “snow raspberries” so delicious they are worth more than their weight in gold and so limited most Havians have never tried them.  A statue called the Iron Dog sits, graffiti-covered, near the southernmost boarder of the country. On May 5, Hav holds a yearly Roof-Race, a dangerous sprint across the roofs of the city, possibly commemorating a historical Havian’s sprint (or maybe not, Morris discovers). As Morris wanders through Hav, she references some of the country’s famous visitors: a young Freud, Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, and even (if rumors are true) Adolf Hitler.

Reading Hav forces you to wonder what’s “real” and what’s “fake” while simultaneously realizing that the distinctions between real and fake, true and false, are arbitrary, shifting, and hazy. The Havians Morris meets contradict one another the way people do in the real world. The Greeks claim Hav was built by Greeks and that history has been swept under the rug: they claim the morning trumpeter, previously identified as an Armenian from a long line of Armenian trumpeters, is actually “pure Greek.” Then, a page later, Morris pulls the rug out from under us again:

The more I watched and listened to them, the less Greek those Greeks really seemed to be. There was something odd about them. Were they really Greeks at all? All the externals were there, of course, clerical board to feta cheese, but something else, something more profound, seemed to be wrong.

Morris travels through Hav wondering how deeply she should investigate the locals’ often wildly varied versions of Havian history. Sometimes she pokes her nose where it doesn’t belong; sometimes she backs away.

“Hav, by Jan Morris, reviewed by Catie Disabato“, Full Stop (Via)