Michael Dirda reviews ‘Hav,’ by Jan Morris

September 28, 2011

Located on the Eastern Mediterranean seaboard, the city-state of Hav has been, at least till recently, all too little known to most Americans. A kind of Levantine crossroads thronged with multiple cultures and religions, Hav traces its origins to the heroic Achilles and his followers, the Myrmidons. Over the centuries, it has been a center of the salt trade with Asia, an outpost of the crusaders, a secret meeting place for the heretical Cathars, a playground for imperial Russia, and, since 1985, a wealthy and rather vulgar destination for tourists and a hub for international commerce.

Jan Morris — one of the most celebrated travel writers of our time — first visited Hav more than 25 years ago, when the city still maintained most of its ancient traditions and much of its faded elegance. In her new book, “Hav,” she brings together her early writings on the city, “Last Letters From Hav,” and the more recent “Hav of the Myrmidons.” From the opening pages of “Last Letters From Hav,” Morris depicts an almost other-worldly realm: “On the left, bathed in golden sunshine against a cobalt sea, was the city of Hav, with elaborately hatted ladies and marvelously patrician beaux sauntering, a little disjointedly where the tiles met, along a palm-shaded corniche.”

After checking into L’Auberge Imperiale du Chemin de Fer Hav, Morris gradually discovers that Hav is, in many ways, an amalgam of all the great and exotic places she has ever visited. Consider its morning market:

“Apparently unregulated, evidently immemorial, it seemed to me . . . partly like a Marseilles fish-wharf, and partly like the old Covent Garden, and partly like a flea-market, for there seemed to be almost nothing, at six in the morning, that was not there on sale. Everything was inextricably confused. One stall might be hung all over with umbrellas and plastic galoshes, the next piled high with celery and boxes of edible grass. There were mounds of apples, artistically arranged, there were stacks of boots and racks of sunglasses and rows of old radios. There were spare parts for cars, suitcases with images of the pyramids embossed upon them, rolls of silk, nylon underwear in yellows and sickly pinks, brass trays, Chinese medicines, hubble-bubbles, coffee beans in vast tin containers, souvenirs of Mecca or Istanbul, second-hand-bookstalls with grubby old volumes in many languages — I looked inside a copy of Moby Dick, and stamped within its covers were the words ‘Property of the American University, Beirut.’

“In a red-roofed shed near the water, shirtsleeved butchers were at work, chopping bloody limbs and carcasses, skinning sheep and goats before my eyes; and there were living sheep too, of a brownish tight-curled wool, and chickens in crude wicker baskets, and pigeons in coops. Women shawled and bundled against the cold sold cups of steaming soup. On the quay Greek fishermen offered direct from their boats fish still flapping in their boxes, mucous eels, writhing lobsters, prawns, urchins, sponges and buckets of what looked like phosphorescent plankton.”

Hav is very much a polygot city — part Trieste, part Alexandria, part Nepenthe. Over the course of six months, Morris observes the annual Roof-Race across the town and the harvest of the exotic snow raspberries (a delicacy more expensive than truffles). She meets European ex-pats and Arabs and Turks and Greeks. She admires the ancient House of the Chinese Master near the Great Bazaar and in the Yuan Wen Kuo district wanders through the dilapidated Palace of Delights, which during the 1920s was packed with clubs, restaurants, gambling booths and sideshows, not to mention the more sophisticated attractions of the discreet House of Secret Wonders. The “dirleddy,” as the polite Havians call Morris, even finds herself the guest of both an urbane caliph in exile and the Kretev indigenes, who look like “gypsy Rastafarians” and live in mountain caves.

Over the centuries, Hav — despite its remote location — regularly attracted the most surprising people, including Russian grand dukes and their ballerina mistresses, composers like Rimsky-Korsakov (who adopted a Havian melody for the main theme of “Scheherazade”) and novelists such as Pierre Loti, James Joyce and D.H Lawrence. Frederic Chopin and George Sand stopped briefly “after their unhappy holiday in Majorca.” The Victorian explorer Richard Burton — never entirely reliable — once claimed to have decapitated a man in a bathhouse in the city’s Arab quarter. Even Hitler was rumored to have surreptitiously visited for a day or two before being picked up by a waiting submarine. It wasn’t so long ago, either, that the Hav Maison de la Culture might feature Colette or Andre Malraux lecturing on “The Meaning of Frenchness or Allegory in Provencal Folk-Dance.” In the 1960s, the city’s easygoing lifestyle quite naturally drew its share of hippies, flower children and American draft dodgers.

The symbol of Hav is the maze, and it’s little wonder that Morris finds it easy to lose herself in this almost unreal city. After a while, some readers may even begin to wonder if Hav just might be as imaginary as Lake Wobegon. It does seem appropriate that typically Havian art, according to the painter Manet, always “looks as though it has been gently smudged by rain, or blurred by wood-smoke.”

Alas, everything changed after the Intervention. “Last Letters From Hav” ended in August 1985 with black fighter planes screaming over the city and warships sailing into the harbor. In “Hav of the Myrmidons” — published in 2006 in Britain but only now in the United States — Morris finds herself invited back, after two decades, to see the wonders of the new Holy Myrmidonic Republic, dominated by high-tech industries and oil production, strict religious observance, and the frequent rewriting and erasing of history. Gone is the old “gaudy eclecticism that made the old city so compelling.” Instead, the 21st-century Hav has become crudely vulgar and totalitarian, its landscape shadowed by the ominous Myrmidon Tower, its government a theocracy ruled by the so-called Perfects.

An appalled Morris soon learns that snow raspberries are now mass-produced and canned, then exported under the brand name Havberries. Migrant workers have been brought in — and exploited — to build airfields, while the Kretevs have been relocated to urban slums. A huge Disneyish tourist complex for the super-rich has replaced the once slightly louche and rundown casino.

In short, Hav, which was for centuries rooted in history and the “overlappings of ancient cultures,” has been turned into a crass, post-9/11, stultifying 21st-century horror.

The city’s full story — insofar as the full story will ever be known — can be found in this handsome paperback. Still, most readers are likely to prefer “Last Letters From Hav,” that beautifully written, nostalgic excursion to the final station stop on the Mediterranean Express, the Hav where Eric Ambler might have set one of his atmospheric spy thrillers of the 1930s or where a doddering Ruritanian prince might try to cadge a glass of champagne. That romantic down-at-heel city no longer exists, if it ever really did. Alas, the Holy Myrmidonic Republic — under various names — is all too real.

Dirda reviews books for The Post every Thursday. Join his discussion at wapo.st/reading-room.

hav

By Jan Morris

New York Review. 301 pp. Paperback, $15.95

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