A world of make-believe
The true tale behind the creation of Hav
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.