The Grotesque and Post-Colonialism: Jan Morris's Last Letters from Hav

Josh Newell '91 (English 34, 1991)

Jan Morris' grotesque image of the Iron Dog in her novel, Last Letters From Hav, serves as an excellent example of the dilemma of Postcolonialism. The Iron Dog, most celebrated of all monuments in Hav, at first glance looks like a fierce, stoic stature but on closer inspection Morris shocks us by pointing out its absurd qualities. "His legs are implanted not ferociously at all, but playfully. His elongated tail streams eagerly, as though he is only waiting the word to spring after grouse or gazell" (Hav, p. 104). The graffiti etched on the dog reveals the many conquerors of Hav who stopped to etch their sign or name. Morris notes that while disgraceful, "there is something intensely moving about these momentos, cut all down the centuries in the skin of this beast. Here as everywhere, one likes to lay claim to the heritage of the Greeks" (Hav, p. 105). The ceaseless cross-fertalization of Hav over the years by the dominate culture at the time, however, has made modern Havian Greeks not really Greeks at all. The Dog, created by the Spartans, symbolizes a city that has been dominated by so many different cultures that it has ceased to have any definable identity of its own. Particular cultures existing within Hav have been able maintain their identity but finding Hav's native culture is virtually impossible. Hav's confused and eclectic nature, however, causes for an unseen, undefinable, but pervasive malaise. The Iron Dog, for Morris, evokes this grotesque sensation. "It is a tantalizing and disquieting sensation. It is rather like the taste you get in butter if it has been close to other foods in the refrigerator; or like the sudden dark calculating look that cats sometimes give you; or like one of those threadbare exhausting dreams that you have you groping through an impenetrable tangle of time, space, and meaning, looking for your car keys" (Hav, p. 146).

Morris provides the reader with an extreme example of Postcolonialism. Unlike the other books, Hav has so many different heterogeneous elements that we cannot tell which is dominant. As a result, Morris completely disrupts our accustomed ways of perceiving the world. Grotesque images such as the Iron Dog and the city itself help produce a state of disharmony and tension forcing the reader into a radically different, disturbing perspective. Moreover, the end of the novel provides no space for any temporary liberation from the grotesque elements of Postcolonialism. Morris simply escapes from Hav, renouncing any responsibility to it.

In contrast, Rushdie's Omar Kayam finally faces Sufiya and accepts responsibility for her rage. "He stood there and waited for her like a bridegroom on his wedding night" (Shame, p. 317). Although he meets a tragic end, the power of the Beast of shame is temporarily quelled and rolls outwards "to the horizon like the sea" (317). Likewise Desai's Deven finally accepts the gift of Nur's poetry, a gift that "meant that he was the custodian of Nur's very soul and spirit. It was a great distinction. He could not deny that under any pressure. The day would begin, with its many calamities. They would flash out of the sky and cut him down like swords. He would run to meet them" (In Custody , p. 204). Despite the costs to them, both Omar and Deven realize that they accept must responsibility for the grotesque elements of their respective Postcolonial nation. Even Carey's Oscar admits to his sins and hopes for the destruction of the glass church realizing that the grotesque structure was a construction of his vanity. Although they achieve temporary liberation from the grotesque horrors of their situation by resolving to face them, the reader must ask oneself if the sacrifice these anti-heroes made might have been too high.

United Kingdom Last Letters from Hav In
Custody Rushdie OV