Hav, by Jan Morris

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The Independent Culture

The famous land of Hav borders on Levantine Turkey. Despite puzzling cultural elements owed to the neighbouring Caucasus, the word itself derives remotely from the Welsh word for "summer". Much about the country is similarly maze-like and strange, from its flora (which includes the endangered snow-raspberry), its fauna (bears, mongeese) to its geography, history, cuisine, trading relations and religious sects. These last encompass cave-dwellers, and secret Cathars reverencing the dread Powers of Evil and Good. Once a British protectorate, Hav was later attached to Tsarist Russia, followed by Ottoman Turkey. Greeks, Venetians and Arabs each played a vital role; so did the Ming Chinese. The unexpectedness and beauty of their pagoda-tower has been known to make tourists to Hav laugh out loud with pleasure.

Famous visitors start with Achilles, who exported its salt. Cavafy, Freud and Princess Anastasia all stayed. DH Lawrence called Hav "restless, unsatisfied; and yet one could not help smiling". Thanks to Jan Morris, we now know exactly what St Paul, Saladin, Marco Polo, Wagner, Mark Twain, Diaghilev, Noel Coward, Hemingway, Trotsky, Hitler and others said about Hav, and what they did there. Foreign women are addressed in English as "Dirleddy". Words such as "Serenissima", "shuttered", "aquarium" and "their" are misprinted, adding to readerly disorientation.

What is Jan Morris up to? Having fun, mostly. Her pastiches are delightful. When the first part of this book - Last Letters from Hav - was shortlisted for the Booker in 1985, fan-letters, one from the Royal Geographic Society, requested information about how to get to Hav. But the place is invented and the book an ingenious, magnificent joke.

Now Morris revisits Hav after unexplained revolutionary changes, to find her first book banned. The country is today given to genetic engineering and surveillance. In the second part, Hav of the Myrmidons, the Chinese tower has been replaced by a 2000-foot skyscraper whose lifts detonate the passenger up inside a vast cylindrical aquarium-sheath. Sighting the fish is designed to calm the ascent.

Here she laments the passing of an older world of internationalist experiment, of rich cultural confusion, of cities both provincial and tolerant, like Morris's beloved Trieste and Venice. Morris is in her 80th year and modestly describes her distinguished career as "blundering about the world, trying to make sense of it". But she has always had the rare qualities necessary for travel-writing: a journalist's patient worldliness, intellectual greed, intuitive sympathy; the ability to settle on one shorthand physical image that can distil a whole history.

Everything seems to interest her; nothing to bore her. She can bring to life what is quaint or threatening and make it seem familiar and comprehensible.

Such qualities rescue Hav from weightlessness and whimsy. On the "slatternly, makeshift" Chinese quarter, for example, she notes the tireless crowds, cooking smells, piles of medicinal roots and powders, "the shining varnished dead ducks hanging from their hooks, the burbling bewildered live ones jammed in their market pens, the men in shirt-sleeves leaning over the balconies of upstairs restaurants, the children tied together with string like puppets ... the nasal clanging of radio music, the clic-clac of the abacus, the men playing draughts beneath the trees". This passage continues for another joyous page of intimately observed actuality. She makes us share and understand the pleasures of perception.

The Chinese Tower once made travellers laugh: Morris wants her readers to smile too. In Old Hav were monks whose doctrine was having a sense of humour, who worshipped life. Jan Morris is a secret acolyte and Hav her touching love-letter, not to an Invisible City of the kind that Calvino or Borges might portentously imagine, but to life itself, with its mysteries and pleasures. Like Samuel Johnson in Rasselas, Morris has penned a fable about an imaginary abroad to teach us about the here and now.

Peter J Conradi's biography of Iris Murdoch is published by HarperCollins