Thank you, Dirleddy


by Jan Morris, introduction by Ursula K. Le Guin

NYRB, 2011

Reviewed by Seana Graham

After reading the first portion of this book, which was published separately as Last Letters from Hav in 1985, many people began consulting their travel agents about how best to get to this enchanting place. Sadly, the travel agents had to tell them that it wasn’t possible. Or, as Ursula K. Le Guin puts it in her introduction,

The problem, of course, wasn’t the destination but the  place of origin. You couldn’t get there, in fact, from London or Moscow; but from Ruritania or Orsinia or the Invisible Cities, it was simply a matter of finding the right train.

Unsuspecting readers may be forgiven for assuming that the renowned travel writer Jan Morris, author of many volumes of travel lore, was again talking of a real place. After all, the story starts, “I did what Tolstoy did, and jumped out of the train when it stopped in the evening at the old frontier.”

But perhaps some light should begin to dawn when Morris immediately falls into the hands of “the tunnel pilot,” whose job it is to meet the train to Hav as it comes over the escarpment. His is a hereditary and ceremonial position, dating back to the time of the Sultans, and the train that rumbles down upon them is an ancient one, bearing the Cyrillic letters of the Imperial Russian Railway. It’s soon clear that we have entered through a portal into some alternate universe, like that of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland or Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.

When I began this book, I understood the nature of Morris’s imagined country, which is set somewhere on the Mediterranean, without quite understanding what the point was. I enjoyed the many whimsical elements, but wondered why a travel writer would be at pains to create a whole new place simply in order to describe it. It is linked very closely with Morris’s real travels, as she enters the narrative itself as Jan Morris, though often referred to by the honorific, “Dirleddy,” an endearing corruption of “dear lady.” But then many elements of our world enter just as easily. Everybody who is anybody seems to have been to Hav, including James Joyce, Benny Goodman and Marco Polo. As the book opens, Hav is a cosmopolitan place, if a bit of a backwater. Every empire has had its day here, and Morris soon finds out that you can get by using a variety of languages.

Slowly it began to dawn on me that no one but Morris could have written this book. It is a reflection on and distillation of half a lifetime of travel experience and erudition. Here is an abbreviated portion of Morris’s description of the Chinese quarter of Hav.

… a town without surprises, homogeneous in its slatternly makeshift feeling, and imbued with all the standard Chineseness of all the Chinatowns that ever were—the tireless crowds and the smell of cooking, the piles of medicinal roots and powders, the shining varnished dead ducks hanging from their hooks, the burbling bewildered live ones jammed up in their market pens… in short the threshed, meshed, patternless, hodge-podge, sleepless, diligent and ordinary disorder of the Chinese presence.

How I enjoyed it last night!

But all is not well in Hav, and the fictional Morris begins to sense the disquiet beneath the tourist charm. As she reveals in an epilogue, the story reflects her own growing unease about her understanding of the world: “After nearly forty odd years of 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—at work beneath the forces of all societies… There was something opaquely ominous in the air of the world.”

The six months Morris covers in “The Last Letters of Hav” end with the mysterious “Intervention,” which brings promises of war as the fictional Morris is forced to leave. And there the tale would have ended, except for a fateful day in our own reality. Morris writes, “I claim no prescience but the brooding sense of foreboding I had sensed erupted into catastrophe on September 11, 2001, and so a still more bewildering zeitgeist was born. This is the time-spirit of my book’s second part.”

This second part, “Hav of the Myrmidons” unfolds twenty years after the first and covers only seven days. The Intervention has changed Hav, and not for the better. The maps from 1985 and from 2005 show that even the landscape has been altered profoundly. Sadly, this second Hav continues even now to hold up a mirror to our own fractured times.  

Seana-Graham-150Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She also reviews for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. She has co-authored a trivia book about her native Southern California and is currently working on a screenplay. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.



Hav at NYRB

Ursula K. Le Guin on Hav

Michael Dirda on Hav