A world of make-be­lieve

The true tale be­hind the cre­ation of Hav

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holiday Reading Special - JAN MOR­RIS

YEARS ago, feel­ing that I had writ­ten quite enough, and more than enough, about the great cities of the world, I de­cided to in­vent a brand-new metropo­lis of my own. I called it Hav. I imag­ined it, im­pre­cisely, as be­ing some­where on an east­ern Mediter­ranean coast, and I wrote two books about it. The place was to­tally fic­tional, all out of my head. To my sur­prise, how­ever, I found that many of my read­ers took it to be a real city and wrote to ask me how to get there.

The more I thought about it, the more clearly I re­alised that I had in­deed made a long, long jour­ney to reach my imag­i­nary des­ti­na­tion, a jour­ney in the mind as well as in the body, through his­tory as through ge­og­ra­phy. It was my life’s jour­ney, really, mir­rored in fancy, but I sent my read­ers there by a con­ve­nient short­cut. ‘‘I made it all up,’’ I told them. Of course, that was no more than a half-truth, be­cause to myHav­books, as to all fic­tion, there was a sub­stra­tum of fact. There never was such a city as Hav, but the ex­pe­ri­ences that cre­ated it, the emo­tions and the il­lu­sions that swirled about my prose, were not made up at all. Real places were blurred in my mind, some­times only in my sub­con­scious, and things that had hap­pened in re­al­ity to me, dur­ing half a life­time of travel, were trans­muted willy-nilly into ex­pe­ri­ences of Hav.

In my books, I imag­ined the ge­o­graph­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal cir­cum­stances of Hav rang­ing from the Mid­dle Ages to our own times, and I see now in ret­ro­spect that I drew them from my ac­quain­tance with half a dozen real cities. There was Gdansk, for in­stance, some­times a city-state, some­times a fief of one em­pire or an­other. There was Tri­este, all alone at the head of the Adri­atic, where cul­tures, lan­guages and his­to­ries over­lapped.

There were the queer lit­tle Aland Is­lands, only half sub­ject to Swe­den; Cet­inje, which was once the cap­i­tal of the Mon­tene­grin monar­chy; and pock­ets of mi­nor­ity cul­tures like the Yezidis of Iraq or the Karaim Jews of Lithua­nia. And in the later pages of myHav­books brazen new cities of the 21st cen­tury in­sid­i­ously sug­gested them­selves, tinged with greed and tourism . . .

All, ev­ery one, old and new, north­ern and south­ern, oc­ci­den­tal and ori­en­tal — all lay along my route to Hav.

Many en­coun­ters on my life’s real jour­ney, too, have found them­selves meta­mor­phosed into Hav’s imag­ined sce­nario. Have you heard the trum­peter of Krakow, whose heart-rend­ing hourly call from the tower of St Mary’s has al­ways seemed to me an epit­ome of Pol­ish­ness? Well, no doubt his call was sound­ing in my mind when I in­vented the trum­peter, tra­di­tion­ally an Ar­me­nian, whose call has for sev­eral cen­turies awo­ken Hav each morn­ing to its work and its proud mem­o­ries.

The Elec­tric Ferry, which swims silently across Hav’s har­bour, has surely chugged there, more nois­ily, di­rectly from the waterfront of Ber­gen, and I first heard the char­ac­ter­is­tic bang­ing of its slat­ted seats on the Star ferry in Hong Kong. The Con­veyor Bridge across the Hav Nar­rows is un­doubt­edly re­lated to the grand old Trans­porter Bridge that car­ries cars back­wards and for­wards across the mouth of the Usk in Wales. The strange Chi­nese tower of Hav owes some­thing to the tomb tow­ers of Iran.

Much of mylife’s pil­grim­age has taken me through the shadow of the lost Bri­tish Em­pire, and I felt its pres­ence also in Hav, which was Bri­tish for a time. The am­bigu­ous grandeur of that once-ma­jes­tic do­min­ion has al­ways haunted me, not least in the crum­bling me­mo­rial slabs I have stum­bled across from Tas­ma­nia to Al­berta. It is not sur­pris­ing that I dis­cov­ered a mov­ing spec­i­men down by the waterfront at Hav, com­mem­o­rat­ing an of­fi­cer of the Royal Engi­neers who had ‘‘Left this Sta­tion to Report to the Com­man­der of a yet Greater Corps’’.

But then again I have al­ways been sub­ject to the se­duc­tions of Araby, and Hav in the old days was mar­vel­lously en­dowed with mosques, car­a­vanserai, quar­ter-tone mu­sic and sen­sual lyrics.

I am an old Welsh pa­triot, but I have a taste for the cos­mopoli­tan. Be­tween the wars Hav had been a ward of the League of Na­tions, gov­erned jointly by the French, the Ger­mans and the Ital­ians, and I found my­self de­light­fully at home hear­ing about the thriv­ing mul­ti­cul­tural Hav of the 1930s, when the night­clubs flour­ished and peo­ple like Benny Good­man and Mau­rice Che­va­lier were pleased to per­form in them. I

spent happy evenings my­self, too, in what re­mained of those old nightspots, and it’s an odd thing that while all my life I have pre­ferred to go to bed early, in Hav I of­ten found my­self carous­ing the night away to the blast of jazz and the thud­ding of drums, un­til the Ar­me­nian trum- peter up on the hill alerted us all to the coming of the day. Much of all this, this cor­re­la­tion be­tween fact and fancy, the dream-jour­ney and the ac­tual, has only come back to me now, as I write this piece. I have al­ways been more aware, though, that I have trav­elled my life in al­le­gory, as it were. Mine was an al­le­gor­i­cal jour­ney, minutely re­flect­ing grander mo­tions of hu­man­ity, and the Hav books that prop­erly rep­re­sented its des­ti­na­tion are lit­er­ary sym­bol­isms them­selves.

They are built, I now re­alise, around a great defin­ing moment of our times, the de­struc­tion of the World Trade Cen­tre in New York in 2001, which more or less co­in­cided with the vir­tual de­struc­tion of Hav.

The first book de­scribes Hav as it was be­fore that epochal calamity — a city rooted in the long his­tor­i­cal past, re­flect­ing and glo­ry­ing in the whole kalei­do­scopic va­ri­ety of an an­cient Euro­pean city, rich in quirks and anom­alies and ref­er­ences and con­tra­dic­tions, messy, colour­ful, funny, end­lessly sur­pris­ing. The sec­ond book, though, re­flects the world, and the city, that has evolved since 2001, and its re­built Hav is far less en­gag­ing.

Nowthe place is with­out bumps and laugh­ter. It is gov­erned by du­bi­ously fun­da­men­tal­ist the­ol­ogy and by a par­tic­u­larly greedy cap­i­tal­ism. Its ar­chi­tec­ture is love­less, its free­doms are muf­fled, and its old sense of in­trigu­ing mys­tery has hard­ened into some­thing more sin­is­ter.

So do you still want to know the way to Hav? Prob­a­bly not. Bet­ter to think of the old place as pure make-be­lieve. This is an edited ex­tract from Bet­ter Than Fic­tion, edited by Don Ge­orge (Lonely Planet, $24.99). See P2 for de­tails of Dy­mocks book dis­count. Last Let­ters from Hav by Jan Mor­ris was short­listed for the Booker Prize in 1985.


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