imaginary cities

Hav is like a nested doll.  There is an original fictional travelogue published in 1987 embedded within the arc of a narrative that updates the story originally published in 1987 with “the events”; with the resulting diptych published in 2007.  Then this embedded story is itself embedded within the life of the travel-writer/popular historian/fiction-writer, Jan Morris.  Jan Morris is a travel-writer in the vein of many a British travel-writer.  With one difference: she is trans*. I imagine this shouldn’t matter, but I think it does.  It gives her a sense of the instability of place and personhood that is nicely reflected in her work.  There is also a humility in the ways in which she portrays the places to which she travels.   She says as much in the epilogue of Hav:

After forty years of wandering the world and writing about it, I had come to realize that I really seldom knew what I was writing about.  I did not truly understand the multitudinous forces -political, economic, historical, social, moral, mythical- that worked away beneath all forms of societies.  I blundered around the planet, groping for meaning but not often absolutely understanding them, and working only with an artist’s often misguided intuition (p.299).

and she ends the book with this quotation from Novalis: “Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.” And it is perhaps because I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment that I have started this blog.

But Jan Morris’ book is also recognisably a British travelogue -even if it is fictional.  The earlier book describes a city modeled after “places like Trieste, Danzig or Beirut” – or Istanbul or Singapore – or indeed Baghdad.  And the latter part describes a city very like Dubai ruled by a formerly oppressed minority who has now established a theocracy in the shiny, drab, sterile new city.

As a whole the story is disorientingly familiar, and affecting, and there are inspiring little bits in there.  In one spot, Weimar-style debauchery by German residents shocks “even the Egyptians… sometimes.” What is lovely about that sentence is the “even” – which makes of Egyptian residents of Hav a kind of high-living, life-loving group of people. There is a description of the harbour, and of the city being a trade entrepot which are very effective.  The description of a musty shipping firm becoming a massive logistics concern is fantastically interesting (my friend Sonya quoting this passage convinced me to read the book):

Mr. Butterworth stirred his coffee cup for a moment. ‘Shipping agencies,’ he said, ‘have always been complex businesses. We’ve always tried to move with the times, which is why we’ve hung on here all this time, and I think I can say we’ve adapted successfully to the new Hav. Those name-plates outside are all ours really, you know – subsidiary companies of ours, associate agencies, concessionaires, that kind of thing.’ 

‘You mean the whole building is yours?’

‘Well yes, in a manner of speaking. Ownership is a sort of abstraction in Have these days. Let’s say we have an enthusiastic interest in it all – how’s that?’ (pp. 272-3)

The city’s pastiche of Istanbul, Shanghai, Beirut and Baghdad introduces lots of different communities living together and the peculiarities of those communities.  There is a lot of detail that is rich and brilliant and lovely and introduces a kind of sunny Mediterranean warmth into the story. In this earlier part, Morris celebrates a kind of Levantine or coastal cosmopolitanism which the British have written about with such affection (think of the Alexandria quartet), however problematically rooted in colonial sentiment this affection may be.  While I really liked the sense of the place in this earlier part, an imaginary geography of great whimsy and descriptive depth, I was also a bit uneasy with the easy way all communities fit the stereotypes of those communities.

The latter part is more interesting to me.  It happens after events obliquely called “The Intervention” – which having been written in the mid-2000s, must map to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.  And in the aftermath of the devastation (where almost all the landmarks are destroyed in ways that remind one of Baghdad) secretive Cathars come to power over a gleaming metropolis which is staid, hyper-policed, and intent on erasing its rich multiethnic history (replaced with kitsch simulacra of the historical past).  Something about the nostalgia for the everyday conviviality of those cosmopolitan days appeals to me as conflagrations of sectarian sentiments seem to turn swathes of the Middle East to ash.   What also appeals to me is the fact that the fundamentalists risen to power are Cathars (not Muslims) and that they have a kind of politeness, intense decorum, and system of thought that vaguely reminds of The Brave New World. And the Dubai-like description is funny and accurate, with comically obnoxious British tourists named the Ponsonbys declaring they prefer the new Hav to the old one: “one feels so safe here. The security’s really marvelous, it’s all so clean and friendly, and, well, everything we’re used to really.  We’ve met several old friends here, and just feel comfortable in this environment” (p. 196).

Even though I like this latter part a lot, something about it also nags at me.  After finishing the book I went off and tracked down the reviews for it.  And reading them clarified what it is that nags at me. I am pretty sure Morris doesn’t mean it this way, but almost all the reviewers saw the book as an “experience of change and decay” or “a fictionalised account of the ways in which contemporary civilisation has lost its way” or “a lament for a lost world and a stinging critique of what has replaced it.”  The reason I am sure Morris doesn’t mean the book to be a conservative plaint about gradual decay of society is a moving scene in which she describes a prettily painted modern village into which a cave-dwelling people she had visited previously have been moved. She mentions that many of the women do say that yes, they have given up the old ways, but their new flats are very comfortable, thank you.  The reason the book still nags at me is that she says these villages remind her “that huge healthy construction the Nazis built on the island of Rugen in the Baltic, to provide holiday indoctrination to the Hitler Youth” (p. 262).

“Development” can be tricky.   Historical change can be tricky.  And Dubai is certainly not the model city of the future.  But there is something troubling about preserving “old ways of life” that smells of a kind of salvage cultural work, of quaint museumisation of other peoples’ histories.

Ultimately, it is these tensions that make Hav an interesting book to read.  Beautifully written and evocative, and still laying bare the dilemmas of writing about “the other.”