Well, this is different… It has an unusual history, too. Jan Morris is a renowned and respected travel writer with such books as Venice and Europe an Intimate Journey under her belt. The first half of this book, then known as Last Letters from Hav, was first published in 1985 and it wasn’t until after the 9/11 effect rippled around the world, shifting political and cultural stances, that Morris considered writing a follow-up charting that type of changes she’d noted while travelling to actual places.
So she wrote the second section and the book in this form was published in 2006. I have something of a soft spot for well-conceived imaginary places – but this is a tour de force. Morris has not only written extensively about the physical geography, describing the buildings and topographical features – she has also provided a vivid historical and political backdrop. During the first section of the book, Hav is a comparative backwater. Athough situated geographically between East and West, it is a cultural and political melting pot with a number of immigrants from France, Turkey, Greece, China, India – as well as the mysterious indigenous cave-dwelling population… She captures Hav’s faded splendour and idiosyncratic customs, many originating centuries ago when Hav was part of the Silk Route and Venice had a series of warehouses backed by powerful merchanting families to protect their valuable assets. Though I constantly had to remind myself as I got caught up in the welter of small details Morris continually drops into her narrative – Hav doesn’t exist.
All this is impressive enough – but for me, the genius of this book is what happens in the second half after the Intervention. Morris revisits Hav and charts how it has changed since the… um – Intervention. No one would be stupidly crass enough to use the word invasion… And indeed, Life for many of Hav’s population has changed for the better. The harbour and merchandising section of the town is now far busier and more dynamic. Hav’s unique snow raspberries are now being industrially produced, canned and exported around the world as a luxury item, instead of being picked wild by the indigenous population and sold at premium rates to the best hotels for food connoisseurs. But people are reluctant to talk openly to Morris – even people she’d known well during her six month stay back in the 1980’s – and they are certainly reluctant to say anything remotely critical about the current regime.
Morris makes a note of the differences between the old Hav and the post-Intervention version, both physical and cultural. The picture she builds of a newly emerging society that has been blown apart and reformed is detailed, nuanced and wholly realistic. The overall result is unique, clever and extremely thought provoking – especially as I’m sure that we can see reflected in Hav’s journey, echoes of many other similar real places scattered around the globe. This remarkable book keeps scrolling through my head whenever I’m not thinking about other stuff – and I have no doubt at all that it is one of my outstanding reads of the year. If geographical politics interests you on any level at all, track it down. It’s worth reading.