Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Holy Books of Guttersnipe Das: Jan Morris

Jan Morris, Hav
Introduction by Ursula K LeGuin
New York Review of Books, 1996

I read as much as I can. I particularly love to scout out books that are unusual and perhaps a little neglected. Once a year I settle on a favorite – and then I irritate my friends (and anyone who will listen) begging them to read it.

In the past I’ve chosen books by Halldor Laxness or Gyula Krudy, by Bruno Schulz or Robert Walser or Clarice Lispector. Writers well-known in certain circles – but not nearly so celebrated, it seems to me, as their brilliance warrants. I call these books my “holy books” – they sustain me as I try to live and write and think in my own way.

Jan Morris’ Hav is the best book I read all year. Here is your chance to tour Hav – a country which does not exist, though Jan Morris knows it intimately and, indeed, has friends there.

This book actually contains two books. The first, “Last Letters from Hav”, was written in 1985. Morris' account of Hav is jam-packed with wonderment and peculiarity – and meticulous as a guide to the Louvre. Hav returned me to the mystery of places I knew when I was young, places I loved without ever quite comprehending – to Delhi and Kathmandu and Hyderabad most especially.

Twenty years later, the New York Review of Books asked Morris to write a kind of sequel. I am grateful to NYRB for many reasons (such as making available GV Desani, Nirad Chaudhuri and Robert Walser) but this was a stroke of brilliance. Unwilling to settle for nostalgia, the second book, “Hav of the Myrmidons”, is remarkably different from the first.

Given the chance to return to Hav, Jan Morris did the bravest and most honest thing to the tangled old city. She destroyed it. Hav rebuilt is convenient and comfortable – the resort is world-class. However, the bears however are extinct. And the troglodytes live in apartments. The famous snow raspberries are genetically modified. And canned. Also, the history of Hav has been rewritten – and any visitor with a sense of self-preservation would do well to keep that fact in mind.

Jan Morris claims her story is an allegory, even claims to not fully understand it herself. Yet she has somehow managed to capture, better than anyone else, what has become of the world. Fiction gets to the truth better than the facts can. What has become of Hyderabad since 1991? Read Hav. Shanghai? Hong Kong? Lhasa? You must read Hav. (I was unsurprised to learn that some of the plans and funds to rebuild Hav originated in China.)

When people ask why I had to leave Tokyo despite its convenience and comfort – I’ll tell them to read Hav. When people want to know what’s become of the family farm – I won’t try to explain, I’ll hand them a copy of Hav. I’m telling you, you must read Hav -- it's the best book I read all year.

1 comment:

Debbie Ann said...

I love Jan Morris, but I haven't read this. Thank you for the review - I put it on my reserve list at the library. It sounds great!