Hav by Jan Morris

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Hav by Jan Morris

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Hav is a place that is very hard to put one's finger on. Jan Morris is very interesting in trying to do so, in this 'travel reportage with a twist'
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: June 2007
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571229840

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In my first attempt at travel writing, I was a bit impolite about Brussels, calling it very average. Of medium size, a bit posh, a bit common, a bit Germanic, a bit French, a bit Flemish, a bit this, a bit that...

Luckily, Jan Morris is a much better travel writer, and as such is probably ideal to write about Hav, a place which is, well, a bit everything... The territory is a bit mountainous, a bit planar, a bit coastal. The city of Hav itself is a bit rich, a bit poor, a bit dockside, a bit Castle Hill. It is a bit like nearly anywhere you care to mention. The way the modern area of town was split into segments controlled by different European powers reminds one of Berlin, the truncated trumpet played daily from a tower is Krakow. The population is a lot Turkish, but also a lot Greek, a fair bit North African, and even a proportion Chinese.

Even its location, in the Mediterranean, suggests how it has for many ages been at the centre of things, able to take from all corners, both near and far. Hav is as a result a bit everywhere, a bit nowhere.

The emphasis there is on nowhere, of course, for Hav is complete fiction. It was interesting to note the hardback of this book blasts the phrase 'a novel' from the front cover. The new paperback does not attempt to define the book.

One thing to note about this novel then is how it uses the genre of travel reportage to get its points across. And that should be clarified as old-fashioned travel reportage - possibly too old-fashioned for some readers. What we mostly get is an abstraction of several months' notes based on a stay in Hav, which were first published in 1985, and unlike modern travel journalism the character of Morris is hardly visible.

Indeed practically the only character is that of Hav, and it has been fully realised. The flora and fauna have all been considered - it is mostly something everyone would recognise, but just a little bit removed. The city has a traditional sporting festival, a cross between parkour and Pamplona's running of the bulls. Morris visits with a caliph in internal exile, awaiting his chance to reclaim power. Everyone welcomes our writer with the word 'dirleddy' - we can hear the natives speak, see their goods offloaded at port, watch them travel on the local ferries.

If this, as travel writing, contains very little of Morris, as a fiction it surely does, and is probably more personal than many travel books. Is this, one wonders, the author's ideal journey - seeing all the pertinent places in Hav while grounding into a daily routine, meeting locals both common and in society? Is this the country Jan would most like to, er, have - where Freud studied, where the stars of the Ballets Russes feel free to dance solo up the streets? Judging by the sea-urchin based cuisine, perhaps not.

This volume contains a lot more of a plot than the 1985 book, as Morris has more recently 'gone back' to Hav. This allows her a much greater opportunity to get her points across. While the very mishmash-ness of the 1985 notes show how even the greatest of writers, with even an extended stay, just do not have the chance to learn about, report back on and describe everything that makes a place work, there is a new element. The modern history Morris has given Hav allows her to show religious, political, technological and societal reasons why many places, here, there and nowhere, in another sense, just do not work.

I think better of Brussels now, and think quite highly also of this book - but both with reservations. Both can be very modern, but both are very traditional. Both can be welcoming, interesting and entertaining, and while very seldom disappointing, they are never likely to become one's favourite.

Our thanks to the publishers for sending this book to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals to you then you might also enjoy Falling Palace by Dan Hofstadter for travel writing which reads as well as a novel or Esther Freud's Love Falls for her splendid evocation of the Tuscan countryside.

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Buy Hav by Jan Morris at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Hav by Jan Morris at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Hav by Jan Morris at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Hav by Jan Morris at Amazon.com.


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