'All of this makes the ponderous routine of Hav seem strangely introspective. Who cares? one soon comes to feel. Who cares if Missakian sounds his trumpet on the rampart? Who cares if the train is late, or what the Prefects did? Who cares if the gun goes off? Only the city itself, whose memories are so long, whose character is so elaborately creased or layered, and into whose idiosyncratic attitudes I find myself all too easily adapting.'
Nic: Hav, by Jan Morris, or: from the ridiculous to the sublime*; being the third part of the Eve's Alexandria Arthur C. Clarke Award reading.
[* with a splendid interlude, I should note]
A portrait of a fictional city penned by the queen of travel-writing, Hav has a complicated publication history (one that has caused questions to be raised about its eligibility for the award, an argument I’ll leave to others). The first part of the 2006 edition was initially printed as a series of letters – which charted Morris’s observations of and exploits in the apparently-doomed titular city over the course of a several-month 'stay' there - in various newspapers. These were then collected as a single volume, Last Letters from Hav, in the mid-1980s. The second part, new for this edition, has Morris (as both author and semi-fictionalised narrator, once again) revisit the place for a week in 2005, lamenting the changes wrought there by time and economics.
Morris places Hav on the (north?)eastern coast of the Mediterranean, an absolutely prime location for it to partake in (and not infrequently be swamped by) the complex cross-cultural currents of the area. At the time of Morris' first visit, Hav is an autonomous city-state (appropriately, for the region), one which has been subjected to a great many influences and invasions over the centuries – Celtic, Minoan, Greek, Byzantine, Arab, Crusader, Turkic (Saljuq, Ottoman, and beyond), Russian, French – anything and everything, indeed, that the area might be expected to throw at it.
The contemporary city is, correspondingly, a patchwork of ethnicities, cultural practices, architectural styles and folk legends, something Morris explores and discusses in several different registers. The first is the broad canvas description, the travel-writer's-eye-view, rendered as vividly as if she really were witnessing it:
The railway track cut a wide swathe through the Balad, and parallel to it ran a tram-line, about which in places swamped dense clusters of figures, some in brown or black, some in white robes - ah, and there came the first tram of the morning, pulling a trailer, already scrambled all over by a mass of passengers clinging to its sides and platforms. I watched its lurching progress south - through those shabby shanty-streets - past the power station - out of sight for a moment in the lee of the castle hill... and turning myself to follow it, I saw spread out before me downtown Hav around the wide inlet of its haven. To the west, at the end of the castle ridge, stood the vestigial remains of the Athenian acropolis, its surviving columns shored up by ugly brick buttresses. Away to the south I fancied I could just make out the Iron Dog at the entrance to the harbour, and beside it the platform of the Conveyor Bridge was already swinging slowly across the water.
There is a tension here – between the supposedly objective, outside observer looking down upon the city, and the inescapably culturally-conditioned pen that transmits the sight for the reader ("like a labour camp", "ugly") - that Morris continues to explore throughout the book, both by making herself a character in the proceedings, and by occasionally hinting at what her observing eye fails to see.
The second approach is the long-view analysis and contextualisation, providing historical anecdote and/or generalised conclusions about Havian culture, often conducted in dialogue with the (invented) perspectives of other (real) writers and thinkers on her created city:
Some scholars go further, and say that the conception of the maze has profoundly affected the very psyche of Hav. It certainly seems true that if there is one constant factor binding the artistic and creative centuries together, it is an idiom of the impenetrable. The writers, artists and musicians of this place, although they have included few native geniuses, have seldom been obvious or conventional. They have loved the opaque more than the specific, the intuitive more than the rational. Pliny said they wrote in riddles, and declared their sculptures to be like nothing so much as lumps of coal. [...] For myself I suspect this lack of edge has nothing to do with mazes, but is a result of Hav's ceaseless cross-fertilization down the centuries. Hardly has one manner of thought, school of art, been absorbed than it is overlaid by another, and the result, as Manet saw, is a general sense of intellectual and artistic pointillism - nothing exact, nothing absolute, for better or for worse.
(And Hav really has enjoyed an impressive guest-list over the years - including but not limited to Tolstoy, Hemingway, Wagner, Byron, Twain, and Churchill – whose comments demonstrate the many ways in which one may respond to a foreign, visited place).
Finally, Hav is explored through its residents: artists, public officials, traders, café-owners, intellectuals, ascetics; old and young, Greek and Turkish, effusively informative and carefully close-lipped. Morris, as narrator, is continually at work forging friendships and making connections, seeking to put together the pieces of the Hav puzzle by observing as many different aspects of it as possible. She visits monuments, private households, embassies, troglodyte dwellings, a religious retreat; she witnesses official receptions, daily activity in the market, and public ceremonial, like the exuberant (and, frankly, suicidal) annual rooftop race. The spirit of Hav, if there is one, clearly lives in its people and their customs - even if the stories are incomplete individually (often, we sense, deliberately), and Morris often feels driven to editorialise. Relaying the comments of Mr Chimoun, Captain of the Port, for example:
"...when I sit here and look out at that splendid view - look, do you see? there is the campanile of San Pietro - when I watch our great ships sailing in" (which they all too seldom do) "and hear the bustle of the merchants below" (he meant the hooting of trucks unable to get out of their parking place) "and when I hear the gun go off as it has for a thousand years" (the Russians instituted the midday gun, in 1875) "then do you know I feel myself truly to be some great signor myself".
Hav has a suitably turbulent history and a rich layering of social, political, and religious frameworks (at least some of which Morris misses), plus a host of little quirks: certain characteristic dishes, popular local songs, its own flora and fauna (and, splendidly, a Zoological Society that publishes its own journal). Even the inevitable 1920s colonial bar (the "air […] full of Turkish tobacco smoke" and the cocktails "arcane") puts in an appearance. It is so endlessly diverse and detailed that no visitor can hope to do more than glimpse its complexity ("the advantage of going native in Hav is that nobody knows what native is"). Indeed, so intricately wrought is Morris' little world that she even provides an etymology for its name:
In the second or first centuries before Christ, the theory is, Celts from the Anatolian interior found their way to the edge of the great escarpment and saw before them, probably for the first time in their lives, the sea. So blue it seemed, we are told, so warm was the Mediterranean prospect, that they called the place simply 'Summer' - still hav or haf in the surviving Celtic languages of the West
Throughout the centuries of change, Hav has retained its own unique cultural identity – or, rather (and perhaps more importantly), it has retained the idea and the supporting myths of its unique cultural identity. When the second part introduces us to a post-revolutionary Hav – now a "Myrmidonic Republic" run by a secretive cabal that likes "ideological certainty" in its architecture and streamlined unformity in its cultural practices (all the better for the tourist trade) – much is made, both by Morris and by her interviewees, of the passing of old Hav, and the fictional basis of much of what has replaced it.
One example: on Morris' first morning in Hav, she is struck by the "wistful threnody" of a sole trumpet, sounding a lament from the Castle walls, just after the call to prayer. She later learns that the trumpeter’s name is Missakian, and that his daily playing forms part of a venerable tradition – dating back, it is said, to 1191, when Saladin’s army re-took Hav after a century of Crusader rule, and a musician by the name of Katourian, who first came to the city with the Franks, sang the lament from the castle walls "as a magnificent farewell" for the departing Crusaders (before killing himself). Saladin – as he so often was in medieval stories like this one – was "moved by the tragic splendour of this gesture", and declared it a daily custom on the spot.
When she returns, however, Morris is saddened by what greets her in the morning – a change that proves representative of the new Myrmidonic (the allusion is appropriate) Hav:
As the sun's rim showed itself above the horizon I imagined the trumpeter in the cold lee of the castle wall, wetting his lips and raising his instrument as the city's minstrels had done every morning for so many generations. No silvery trump[et] called, to die away heart-rendingly into the mist. Instead there suddenly sounded, tremendously amplified over loudspeakers across the city, the lugubrious clanging chimes of a carillon, playing music that I did not recognise but which sounded almost fictionally antique.
The old custom is gone, explained by a new story of an equally tragic end (Missakian is said to have been killed, in mid-lament, by the first shot fired of the "Intervention", the revolution/coup that ushered in Myrmidonic Hav). It is patently false, and derided as such by opposition intellectuals to whom Morris speaks ("'Well cast your mind back, Jan dear. You were here that day. You know just as well as we do that the first shots of the Intervention were fired in the afternoon!'"). But theirs is the reaction of those witnessing the (rather clumsy) invention of a civic legend. Hav is built upon a host of tales that are little more plausible; Katourian, for example, would have been over 100 by the time of his heavily-symbolic suicide. All are the foundation myths of Havian identity; like any 'national' myths, they are remembered and invoked because they mean something to the audience of a given age, rather than because they are literally true. All is construct, to some degree. The difference is that Morris (the narrator) is present for one of those periods in which identity is more obviously being reshaped by short-term events, as the new government seeks to anchor its legitimacy in a reimagined past that links Hav's creation with Achilles.
Not all the changes are for the worse; nor can all of old Hav can be compelling simply for its oldness, however rose-tinted the view (on her first taste of the famed snow raspberries, Morris notes that, "the mystique that used to surround them was misplaced"). But the overall tone is an elegiac one, both for Morris’ own failures of understanding, and for what is lost when the world moves on:
It looked very different from the Hav I remembered. Gone was the esoteric skyline of turrets, minarets and gilded domes. Only the castle still stood on its crag high above. For the rest, all was a grey flattish blur of new buildings, low and flat, with a minaret protruding here and there, and a distant jumble of masts and riggings at the waterfront, but none of the gaudy eclecticism that made the old city so compelling.
Vicky: So much for divisive debate. Hav by Jan Morris (the only woman on the shortlist) is yet another Clarke novel on which Nic and I appear to agree entirely. I too thought it a beautiful, graceful, eloquent and provocative piece, thematically rich and deliciously clever. And so, since I have little to add to the above analysis, I'll make a different tack...
Nic has rather cunningly (and sensibly) managed to write her part of this post without approaching what will be, for some readers, the thorniest points at issue with Hav. Not is it a good novel - it so clearly is - but is it eligible for the Arthur C Clarke Award? First, there is the problem of its publication history, to which I shall turn shortly, but secondly and more pressingly, there is the 'genre problem'. Namely, is Hav an SF novel at all?
Now, it should be a fact universally acknowledged that defining 'genre' or SF is a tricky pain in the arse. And so I think it best to give the first word on Hav's credentials to Ursula Le Guin in her Guardian review of the book :
'I expect academics and other pigeonholers may stick Hav in with Thomas More and co. That is a respectable slot, but not where the book belongs. Probably Morris, certainly her publisher, will not thank me for saying that Hav is in fact science fiction, of a perfectly recognisable type and superb quality. The "sciences" or areas of expertise involved are social - ethnology, sociology, political science, and above all, history. Hav exists as a mirror held up to several millennia of pan-Mediterranean history, customs and politics. It is a focusing mirror; its intensified reflection sharply concentrates both observation and speculation. Where have we been, where are we going? Those are the questions the book asks. It poses them through the invention of a place not recognised in the atlas or the histories, but which, introduced plausibly and without violence into the existing world, gives us a distanced, ironic and revelatory view of everything around it. The mode is not satiric fantasy, as in the islands Gulliver visited; it is exuberantly realistic, firmly observant, and genuinely knowledgeable about how things have been, and are now, in Saudi Arabia, or Turkey, or Downing Street. Serious science fiction is a mode of realism, not of fantasy; and Hav is a splendid example of the uses of an alternate geography.'
Which has me mostly convinced, although I disagree somewhat on the cited difference between SF and fantasy and I'm not entirely sure that a novel is automatically SF because it functions in an SF-nal way. And I think that alternate history is more of a hybrid form than Le Guin allows, functioning thematically and narratorially in that lively space between SF and Fantasy. Those are caveats, however, and I agree on the most important point - that Hav is SF and eligible for the Clarke. For a beginning, I think the novel's form is unusually suited to SF - even straight travel-writing requires its readers to adapt and acclimatise in ways similar to SF and fantasy, and fictional travel-writing even more so. First there comes the alienation, the dizzy mixture of familiar and unfamiliar signifiers, then the reconciliation and recognition:
'I did what Tolstoy did, and jumped out of the train when it stopped in the evening at the old frontier... Very unusual, said the driver, to find a customer at the station these days, but he made the journey twice a week anyway, there and back, under contract to the railway. This was the tunnel pilot's car, he explained and he was Yasar Yegen the tunnel pilot's nephew, the pilotage being a hereditary affair... Why did they a pilot for the tunnel? The Porte had insisted on it, for southbound trains only, as a token of the Sultan's sovereignty over the Pendeh settlement...'
But whereas in straight travel-writing (and in straight contemporary fiction too) the reader can become an 'insider' who can physically and emotionally 'live' in the world the writer invokes, in a fictional travel piece like Hav the reader remains an eternal outsider. As in SF, he/she can never belong. And yet, at the same time, he/she will always belong, because liminality, hybridity and connections made against the tide of the real are the salient points of the exercise. The rest follows: that Hav is a meditation on the nature of utopia (and dystopia), that it deals in the ways that history, technology and mythology will be brought to bear on the future, that it resists being merely an allegory for the 'real world' and that it is fuelled by the forces of multiplicity and difference. All these components, working together, are enough to convince me that Hav is true to the spirit of SF, even if we find its credentials difficult to weigh or evaluate.
As to whether the book is eligible for the award on the grounds of its publication history? That depends on whether you consider it to be a 'novel' at all: Is it a unified narrative with two co-dependent halves? Or a reprint of a novella from 1985, with an appended short story? If you think the latter then, well, no argument, the book isn't eligible. But if the former is true then, no question, it fits the criteria. And as I see it the book should be viewed and read as a whole; the prior publication of the first half is irrelevant because it is subsequently transformed by the latter half. It becomes a fundamentally different piece and project and the tenor is thoroughly changed. Further, I think an argument can be made for the novels' publication history as a thematic conceit. That is, the staggered publication stands to epitomise the tensions between fiction and reality, between past and present, that thread through both halves of the book - the book's physical status colludes with the plot and meaning of the novel. Which is deliciously post-modern and thoroughly satisfying.
I think it has been a brave choice for the shortlist, and one that could bear special fruit. Certainly, it has sent me spinning off to read Morris' travel writing and to reconsider how alternate history and/or geography should be categorised in 'genre'. I don't imagine it will win - consider the uproar? - but I do hope that the SF community will embrace and accept it as a sheep in the fold.
Nic: Actually, I rather hope it does win...