Back when most people stayed home, travel writing was a highly imaginative genre. Ask Pausanias, Ibn Battuta or Marco Polo about the strange creatures and bizarre customs that they, and evidently nobody else, encountered in their wanderings. But modern practitioners Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux, Pico Iyer have helped elevate travel writing, if not to a science, then at least to an art that values truth.
No one has mastered that task more deftly than Jan Morris, 79, the England-born, thoroughly Welsh writer and historian. In more than 40 books and countless essays over the past half-century, she has marshaled reportorial insight and literary flair to describe nearly every interesting place on the planet. Unique among them is Hav, the microscopic, Levantine city-state she first put on the map 21 years ago with
Last Letters from Hav and which she revisits in her latest, perhaps most insightful book yet, titled simply Hav.
Located south of the Caucasus, north of Turkey and this side of paradise, Hav had drowsed for centuries through Greek, Turkish, Russian and British occupations, wars of all colors and a League of Nations mandate before attaining a genial, pre-civil-war-Beirut balance among its many ethnic and political factions. Morris' word-portraits of Hav's labyrinthine Medina, its precious snow raspberries, its grueling annual "roof race" and the official trumpeter who woke the locals every morning with a tune dating from the First Crusade made the place indelible in the annals of travel. "Hav had seemed to me a little compendium of the world's experience, historically, aesthetically, even perhaps spiritually," Morris writes in her introduction to the new book, "and could surely never be the same place again."
An understatement. The old Hav was bombed to rubble in the 1985 Intervention that led to the current religious regime. The new state, Morris writes, is an efficient, tourism-obsessed, architecturally innovative resort destination a kind of sanitized Singapore or a deracinated Dubai. The snow raspberries are now genetically engineered and exported aggressively, the trumpeter has been replaced by an electronic carillon, and the old ethic and religious tensions are reasserting themselves. "In many ways," writes Morris, the city has become "a paradigm of our 21st century zeitgeist."
A paradigm it will remain, for Hav exists only in the mind of Jan Morris. Last Letters from Hav, her first novel, was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1985. The volume sowed confusion among Morris' fans, many of whom wrote to request directions and ask if a visa were necessary. "Only one single correspondent," she writes in an epilogue to Hav, "an octogenarian lady in Iowa, saw my little book as allegory."
The new allegory helpfully reprints the entire 200-odd-page original and proceeds smoothly to its slightly shorter sequel, subtitled Hav of the Myrmidons, a reference to the state's new cultlike leadership. "I hadn't planned to do another novel," says Morris from her home in the Welsh village of Llanystumdwy, where she has just said goodbye to a group of admirers from Canada's Yukon Territory. ("We get a lot of visitors up here, especially in the summer.") But the World Trade Center attack and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Iraq changed her mind. "I wondered what had happened to Hav since 9/11. The gloomy picture I present is clearly what I feel now. For years I'd been hearing people say that the world is going to the dogs, and 9/11 was the first time I began to think they were right."
Morris has seen enough of that world to know where it is heading. Born James Morris in Somerset to an English mother and Welsh father, he spent the final years of World War II as a British army intelligence officer in Palestine and Italy before going off to study English at Oxford. He married Elizabeth Tuckniss, daughter of a colonial tea planter, and talked his way into a reporting job at London's Times newspaper. Morris famously broke the news of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's historic 1953 ascent of Mount Everest (the reporter himself made it two-thirds of the way up). After publishing seven books on the U.S., the Middle East, Africa and Venice, the last a longtime favorite destination of his Morris left daily journalism for full-time book writing.