November 28, 2008


Jan Morris


(November 28, 2008)

In 1985, Jan Morris imagined a great place about which to write, and wrote about it. Last Letters from Hav describes a six month trip to a wonderful, strange little city somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean where people wear djellabas and straw hats, where a lone Armenian trumpeter plays a mournful Provencal tune at sunrise every morning to commemorate a victory of Saladin, where the railroad arrives through a once-legendary tunnel and djows are anchored in the harbor, and where on very special mornings in February the local country-dwellers (who live in caves) bring to market the local delicacy, Snow Raspberries, which sell for extraordinary sums.

A further fantastic element, recalling bygone days as vividly as the accounts of elderly, impoverished white Russian ladies recalling their youthful flirtations with Nijinsky at the Hav Casino: the travel writer spends six months, first in a hotel and then in a comfortable apartment, researching and writing.

She departs prematurely, as a market-place rumor becomes a flap, and that escalates into a tourist exodus:

Before me, over the tussocky moorland, the train stood at the frontier station, a thin plume of smoke rising vertically from its funnel, a clutter of cars and people all around. Once again I was reminded of Africa, where you sometimes see the big stream-trains standing all alone, inexplicably waiting, in the immense and empty veldt. I looked begind me then, back over the peninsula: and like grey imperfections on the souther horizon, I saw the warships coming.

I saw the warships coming. Nicely done, for at this edge of the fields we know (and Hav, often strange, is never very frightening) we see the ship — the black freighter — sail into the harbor. The horns of elfland are blowing.

Twenty years later, Morris returns to the execise in Hav of the Myrmidons. The revolution has happened, history has swept over Hav. And though much has been lost, a surprising amount remains, and we meet many of the characters we once knew. They are older now, chastened, careful of what they say. They do not love the new regime, but Hav is prosperous and orderly and everything has been rebuilt. The new tourist island — rebuilt on what was once the prison — has every convenience (and every surveillance device) the wealthy could require, and if you have a Blue Pass you can even go to the mainland to see the sights with a member of the Office Of Ideology and Ethnic Authority.