Traces of Empires & Cultures in Jan Morris' Last Letters from Hav

Randall Bass, '91, English]

In Last Letters from Hav, Jan Morris depicts Hav as a place that has been perpetually an object of external domination by foreign powers, a small jewel for one nation or empire after another to acquire and dominate. As a result, each foreign power has left its mark, its imperial trace, leaving Hav as a kind of poly-cultural fossil, with each layer of history and cultural influence etched into its surface.

Morris displays this poly-culturalism over and over again, such as in her travel writer's zeal for the wonders of the cuisine:

Could there be such a menu, I wondered, anywhere else on earth? Not only were there the old stalwarts of classical French and Italian cooking--not only the inescapable pigeon's breasts and raw mushrooms of the nouvelle cuisine--not only roast beef for traditionalists, jellied duck for Sinophiles, borscht for nostalgia, couscous, pumpkin pie--there was also a fascinating selection of Hav specialties (135).

Hav's architecture reveals the same kind of poly-culturalism, only instead of a smorgasbord, the end result is more of a unique and curious hybrid. After quoting the famous (real) artist Manet who once noted how all the art of this city "looks as though it has been gently smudged by rain, or blurred by wood-smoke," Morris remarks:

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 or 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 pointilism--nothing exact, nothing absolute, for better or for worse. You can see it at the Museum in the folk art of the peninsula, which is a heady muddle of motifs eastern and western, realist and symbolical, practical and mystically unexplained; and you can see it all around you in the architecture. . . .The one great Chinese building in the peninsula is a mishmash of architectural allusions. The British built their Residency as if they were in India. And we have already seen with what adaptive flair architects Schroter and Huihn, when the time came, mixed their metaphors of Hav. Its is the way of the place--rivers of History! (139)

While Jan Morris's narrator (Jan Morris) treats this poly-culturalism as something special and unique about Hav--usually the very source of its charm--there is an ominous undertone to the blithe reportage of so many traces of empire, not the least of which is the final scene, where she stops and looks over the hill to the bay, and "like gray imperfections on the southern horizon," she sees "the warships coming." Hav is yet to be another site for conquest and contestation.

In what ways then are the very blithe descriptions of the city pointing toward some more profound, and political, dimension of a vague middle-eastern city, in a vague part of Asia-minor? Is there a truly Native Hav? Is it important in the book that whatever is Native in Hav is very difficult to locate?

How is Hav a microcosm of the world system map, where first world countries, through the middle of the twentieth century, consciously divided up the third-world among them?

How is Hav a figment of "Orientalism" as Edward Said might describe it--that is, how is its fictional status in Morris' imagination a useful metaphor for the way that third-world (Orientalized) countries always exist in first world eyes as "fictions", merely imposed represenations of what kind of culture truly exists?

United Kingdom Last Letters from Hav