9/28/11

Keizo Hino - Had Tokyo's neighborhoods become such dreadful places that it was only here, on this artificial island, that these children could act out their fantasies?




Keizo Hino, Isle of Dreams, Trans. by Charles de Wolf, Dalkey Archive Press, 2010.

"Though it has a lovely name, the real "Isle of Dreams" is a hunk of reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay where the city dumps its garbage... and yet, Shozo Saka, a middle-aged widower, does indeed find the place beautiful: gravitating more and more, since the death of his wife, toward the Island's massive piles of trash. One day, however, his refuge is invaded by Yoko, a mysterious woman in black, who visits the Isle on her motorcycle for no other reason than to treat it as her own private obstacle course. Soon Yoko has lured Saka away from his garbage-paradise, leading him back into a Tokyo far less benign than the things it's thrown away. Acclaimed on its first publication, Isle of Dreams is a sinister satire on urban decay."

"In this novel, the metropolis of Tokyo is a living creature. Within its inner workings, skyscrapers and massive overpasses alike are born and grow, continually breathing, panting, trembling, maturing, and developing cracks." - Masha Miura

"In Hino's acclaimed 1985 novel, translated into English for the first time, Tokyo is both a setting and a living being, at once evolving and dying in the eyes and mind of Shozo Sakai. Sakai is a middle-aged widower working for a Tokyo construction firm, whose life, while satisfying, is mundane. His true passion lies within the high-rises his company constructs, and he finds himself drawn to a piece of reclaimed land, the landfill island that gives the book its title. There he meets Yoko Hayashi, a mysterious young beauty. Sakai immediately becomes fascinated with her and allows himself to be drawn into her intriguing life, discovering a Tokyo he's never known. As inventive as the late author's efforts to anthropomorphize Tokyo are, they consume his focus; the human characters never develop and attempts to parallel two stories don't come together. Hino's illustration of the heartbreaking desecration of a Tokyo still haunted by its past is a real achievement, though, and readers will feel genuine empathy for the city." - Publishers Weekly

"Like a haiku poem, this eloquent novel packs vast quantities of beauty and meaning into a mere 168 pages. Acclaimed in Japan 25 years ago, I’m grateful it has finally made it into English. Brilliant.
Why?
There are so many layers to explore and think about in this book, it is a true literary treasure. If you’re the type of person who enjoys existentialists works and classic European movies, this one is tailor made for you. Even if you’re not that type, this book still deserves your attention.
Of course I have no idea how Isle of Dreams read in its original Japanese, but Charles De Wolf’s translation certainly felt right:
landfill dumps take on rare beauty, nature writhes with intense sensuality, even concrete skyscrapers come alive.
Sleep walking each day
Unaware that everywhere
Life and death entwine.
OK, that’s my poor haiku verse that tries (and certainly does not succeed) to encapsulate the core of this lovely novel. This is a rare gem that deserves to be read far beyond courses in Japanese Literature." - Rikki Boyce

"In Donald Richie's short novel "Tokyo Nights," two characters discuss authenticity:
"Nothing is original — ever. Things seem to be changing but they are always the same."
"Like Tokyo," said Hiroshi.
"We dote on the new, not sensing the old . . ."
In "Isle of Dreams," 50-year-old construction worker and widower Shozo Sakai enjoys his lunchtime walks in the canyons between Tokyo's tall office buildings. To him, these glass, steel, and concrete edifices are things of reverberation and presence, reflecting each other while creating depths from surface, made real by his image of them as multiple-exposure photographs, the solidification of the peripheral. On one of his walks, this architectural sensitivity triggers a hallucination transporting Shozo back to his postwar student days and his visits to the Soviet Cultural Center that stood in the present space.
What has protruded into his everyday life? Tokyo — a perpetually changing dream in which memory, history, and "reality" elide, dislocate, and/or drift.
On his days off, Shozo takes buses around the city looking for and then exploring any buildings that interest him.
On one such journey, he finds himself on Harumi Island with thousands of schoolchildren attending a Comiket-like event. Looking back at the Tokyo skyline, he sees the city in flame — either a vision of the future or a flashback. As he is leaving, a mysterious woman motorcyclist nearly runs him down. He begins to feel "quite alien to the world he had previously known and experienced" and is drawn to the artificial island, part of the force transforming the megalopolis.
On a trip to Odaiba, he has another hallucination; this time, a violent and sexual response to a piece of red kimono material among the garbage, this, in turn, causes a psychosexual memory conjuring a nightmarish black ship.
One Sunday, at a refuse dump on Odaiba, Shozo rescues the mysterious young woman (Yoko Hayashi) injured in a speed-tribe motorcycle duel. He takes her to hospital where she warns him he will never get back to his original self. When she disappears, Shozo tracks her down and finds another woman, an equally mysterious mannequin designer, who warns him against looking for Yoko.
Shozo's obsessions multiply — buildings, reclaimed land, refuse dumps, mannequins, the two women (doubles?).
His addiction to the interstices "(b)etween nature and artifice, between day and night, between reality and fantasy" grows and he is drawn deeper into the young women's world. With Yoko, he visits an off-limits island, an old battery dating to the time of Commodore Perry's Black Ships. What appears a very Freudian semi-paradise, with historical ruins surrounded by primeval forest, soon transmogrifies through a fungal unconscious into a horrorscape of dead herons.
Plutarch wrote of Heraclitus' river, "So sharp and so swift its change; it scatters and brings together again.... even while it is being formed it fails, it approaches, and it its gone. Hence becoming never ends in being, for the process never leaves off, or is stayed."
Tokyo, like J. G. Ballard's London or Steve Erickson's Los Angeles, is an ever-evolving, expanding narrative in which demolished buildings shimmer ghostlike in the memories of the skyscrapers that now inhabit their space.
The city generates its own reality, its own myths, a place and space where refuse dumps, plastic bags, discarded pantyhose have their own life, their own story to tell; the islands in the bay seeping time, slipping time, a megalopolis of irretrievable history birthed by the very things it discards.
An eerie, contemplative novel, full of hallucinations and history, obsession and possession, the urban surreality of "Isle of Dreams" is part eco-slipstream part-Japanese ghost story." - Steve Finbow

"Pop Quiz: The title, Isle of Dreams, refers to:
A.) Japan’s newest slapstick game show, featuring contestants attempting to escape from an imagined island full of bizarre obstacles;
B.) An ancient Japanese epic-poem about a sailor whose fidelity is tested while stranded on a magical island full of lizard-monsters and seductresses;
C.) A giant garbage dump in Tokyo Harbor that has become the foundation for a new strip of land annexed from the sea.
All three of these answers appear equally far-fetched, but the correct answer is C. Isle of Dreams is indeed about a giant garbage dump visited only by sanitation workers, motorcycle-riding derelicts, and a middle-aged widower strangely obsessed with this stinking edifice. This is the setting and inspiration for Keizo Hino‘s of 1985 novel, now translated by Charles De Wolf and available in English.
The book’s protagonist, Shozo, is a middle-aged widower absently sleepwalking through life at a Tokyo construction firm. Dramatic tension is gradually introduced into the book when he wanders onto the Isle of Dreams. Here, he is nearly run down by a leather-clad biker, Yoko, a hot babe half his age. Shozo becomes obsessed with Yoko and the island. A melancholy and mystical relationship develops.
While the Walter Mitty-meets-Jezebel plotline certainly seems western enough, Isle of Dreams defies western storytelling norms in other ways. Isle of Dreams is a sparse book: only 150 pages, much of it void of dialogue and plot. It is stocked with adjective-rich sentences about what Shozo is seeing and feeling. In place of real action, Hino offers sentences like, “He intuitively sensed a mighty power, an uncanny force of nature surpassing his understanding.” For decades, American community college teachers have scolded young authors to “show” and not “tell;” Hino was not schooled in an American community college.
The most interesting element of Isle of Dreams is its intermingling of the real and the unreal. Shozo’s Tokyo is very real—warehouses, apartment flats, skyscrapers—but the Isle of Dreams is not quite real, or perhaps it is more than real. People change when they come to the island; over the course of the book, the island grows and changes. Appended to the Isle of Dreams is an additional and even more mystical island, a polluted and densely overgrown hunk of rock where a fortress once stood prior to Commodore Perry “opening” Japan. This is the site of the book’s transcendental climax.
Although largely “westernized,” the Japanese have adopted western institutions with surprising results. They put squid in ice cream and insert bowing into baseball. So too, Japanese novels (that quintessentially western literary form) are derivative of western literary convention only to a point.
Hino’s Isle of Dreams is illustrative: Its conventional novel form and plotline is superseded by a striking co-mingling of the mundane and mystical, and a modifier-laden writing style that tells all and shows little. This may be off-putting to the typical American reader. While some Japanese novels have been deservedly praised as masterworks (i.e., Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters, Kawabata’s The Sound of the Mountain, Ooka’s Fire on the Plain), others may be perceived as equivalent to squid-flavored ice cream." - Michael Adelberg

"Isle of Dreams/Yume no shima was first published in Japan in 1985, just preceding the economic boom which in turn led to the overinflated valuation of property prices which would ultimately lead to the economic downturn at the end of the last millennium. The central character of Isle of Dreams, Shozo Sakai, aged 50 and widowed, is of the generation that witnessed both the poverty of the immediate post war years and a spectator to the economic ascension. At the beginning of the novel he is quietly in awe of the new Tokyo architecture which his company is constructing, Hino observes the shift in perspectives between the generations, ‘For Shozo and his contemporaries, buildings of steel and concrete were a goal in life, but for the next generation, they were no more than a starting point’. Often Shozo will get off the bus before reaching his destination to go back to examine a building more closely. Finding himself in one spot he reflects on the effects of the Tokyo bombing during the war, being slightly too young to remember it at first hand, he imagines the modern buildings engulfed in flames, Tokyo Tower collapsing in the immense heat. As Shozo traverses around districts of Tokyo; the Ginza, Tsukiji, and Tsukishima he encounters a manga convention,where the young participants are dressed up as their favourite characters, seeing them he reflects; Had Tokyo's neighbourhoods become such dreadful places that it was only here,on this artifical island,that these children could act out their fantasies? It was after all, he and his contemporaries who had produced that same metropolis. Another area Shozo is drawn to is the reclaimed land around Tokyo bay, walking there one day he is nearly knocked down by a motorcyclist dressed in black who when taking off her helmet Shozo discovers is a woman, incredulously to Shozo she offers him a lift. Walking again around the city another place that becomes an object of his curiosity is a shop window full of mannequins; the assistant arranging them has a familiarity. Shozo finds that his Sunday walks out on the reclaimed land offer him an opportunity to tap into his subconscious thoughts and desires, he feels detached from the past, his thinking is interrupted this time by a biker gang racing around, one falls off but the rest speed off leaving the fallen rider, approaching the body lying motionless Shozo recognises that it’s the woman who nearly ran him over, he hovers over her prostrate body caught in a moment of indecision, but hails a cab and takes her to a hospital. The next day he revisits the hospital to discover she’s signed herself out; he pays her bill and discovers her name, Yoko, and also her address.
Finding himself at the address, surprisingly the woman from the shop with the mannequins answers, is she Yoko’s sister? , as there’s a resemblance. Wandering out on the reclaimed land he’s not surprised when he encounters Yoko again, although this time she has a boy on the back of her bike, ‘Are you ready to go?’ she asks, they lead him to an island on the other side of the reclaimed land away from Tokyo Bay, walking through the overgrown bushes and trees Yoko cuts her head badly. Although not at first talkative, once on the island the boy demonstrates an almost extra sensory oneness with the nature of the island. This part of the novel’s setting is in complete contrast to the steel and concrete of the architecture at the beginning of the novel, amongst the overgrown trees and vegetation of the island Shozo makes out old houses and harbour buildings that probably date back to the time of Commodore Perry, which highlights one of the central themes of the novel, the transience of civilisations and the battle of man vs. nature, the novel also carries an allegorical environmental message which is conveyed in the fate of the birds of the island. The attention shifts focus of the main character at the closing of the novel, which reveals a few enigma's within the text. Hino’s writing is noted for being similar to J.G Ballard, reading this novel also brought to mind William Golding." - Nihon distractions

"The central figure in Isle of Dreams is Shozo Sakai, a widower in his fifties who lives in the construction-booming Tokyo of the 1980s. He works for a construction firm, too, and enjoys wandering around and watching the changing cityscape. One weekend he heads out to Harumi Wharf, for the spectacular view of the city from there, the first of a series of adventures to 'isles of dreams', artificial islands in various states that lead him to reflect on the shifting nature of Tokyo ("Tokyo lives", it dawns on him at one point) -- and of reality.
Going to Harumi Wharf he finds himself in a sea of children and adolescents, all on their way to a fanzine bazaar, many costumed. There are no adults, and even he barely seems to exist in the alternate reality there - no one takes notice of his presence - and he wonders:
Had Tokyo's neighborhoods become such dreadful places that it was only here, on this artificial island, that these children could act out their fantasies? It was, after all, he and his contemporaries who had produced that same metropolis.
The isles he visits are increasingly removed from the city proper. One is the area beyond Reclaimed Land Site #13, a landfill in the process of being filled that will eventually serve as the foundation for more expansion of the city. As Shozo explains to a colleague who arranges for him to visit the area:
But recently I've had the strange feeling that I need to verify some sort of starting point. We've been working like madmen for thirty years. Who are we, and what have we been doing?
Eventually he winds up in an even more isolated spot, among the rotten remains of an old, deserted outpost in the bay from the time when Admiral Perry arrived to open Japan to foreign trade, a symbolic place (in a variety of ways) that is an intersection (and nightmarish vision) of Tokyo's past and its future.
Along the way, Shozo encounters a mysterious woman, Yoko Hayashi - and a woman whom he takes for her sister (but each denies she has a sister...). One straddles a huge motorcycle which she races at high speed, the other is an artist who creates window-displays; Shozo is fascinated by these elusive, split personalities and repeatedly seeks them out; they, in turn, help him expand his horizons.
Hino masterfully conveys the different city- and landscapes, right down to the harrowing final island scenes. Shozo's receptiveness to more down-to-earth experience - in a world where "earth" is hardly stable, and much of it reclaimed from the detritus of the (often very recent) past - makes for an evocative and quite powerful vision of urban growth and decay, and how vicious and immediate that cycle can be. The woman complicates matters: a useful, intriguing mystery figure, Hino demystifies too much in the conclusion, wrapping up his story too conventionally neatly and thereby undermining even the strong touches he offers there (such as the image that: "in his eyes Tokyo was mirrored -- upside down"). Nevertheless, the novel, and its vision, is a haunting one." - M. A. Orthofer

"In Keizo Hino’s novel, originally published in Japan in 1985, Shozo Sakai, fifty and widowed, drifts through the days working for a construction company, and through the nights drinking with co-workers and clients. On his days off, he drives around looking at buildings. He is especially drawn to an island of reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay where also the city dumps its garbage. From there he can see the city skyline in one glance. Ironically, this manmade island is called the Isle of Dreams.
Shozo visits the Isle every Sunday where he “felt that it was during his wanderings about the reclaimed land that he was his true self, while during the week he was someone else.” Strangely, he finds that the fresh trash, particularly pieces of clothing, “kindled in him a feeling bordering on the sexual, something which, since the death of his wife, he had thought irrelevant to him.”
On one otherwise quiet and contemplative Sunday, he is nearly run over by a speeding motorcyclist using the empty asphalt and trash piles as a race track. The rider stops when Shozo yells he was nearly hit. The rider takes off a black racing helmet and Shozo discovers the rider is a young, attractive woman. After a lengthy non-apology, blaming Shozo for “loitering”, the woman drives off.
Put off and intrigued by the woman’s brash behavior, so opposite of his, he becomes obsessed with seeing her again. Some weeks later, he happens upon several motorcycles roaring through the area. The last motorcyclist gets in an accident and the others continue on unaware of the mishap. Shozo goes to the rider’s aid, and it happens to be the woman. She is alive but in pain. He flags down a taxi and they take her to a hospital.
When he returns the next morning, she has already checked out and stuck him with the bill. But at least he has her name now: Yoko Hayashi. Rather than discouraged, the encounter leaves him energized: “He was well aware of some inner stimulation. It was as though his spirit were acting quite on its own.” When he tracks down Yoko, he discovers she is not who she seems, but then it is too late for him.
Isle of Dreams is a haunting, edgy, and surprising novel. The feelings of dread and blind obsession it evokes is indicative of the current times, as we try to build an economic recovery on the garbage of greed and overconsumption. The intensity of the ending sends out a warning to guard one’s soul, whatever that may actually be." - Todd Shimoda


"For all of you not wasting away in concreteland, the Isle of Dreams is here!"
I was instantly enticed to read Keizo Hino's Isle of Dreams by the blurb on the back cover:
Though it has a lovely name, the real "Isle of Dreams" is a hunk of reclaimed land in Tokyo bay where the city dumps its garbage... and yet, Shozo Sakai, a middle-aged widower, does indeed find the place beautiful: gravitating more and more, since the death of his wife, toward the isle's massive piles of trash'.
How wonderful! I'd spent a lot of time in Odaiba, that reclaimed land site now filled with shopping malls (whose ceiling is decorated with clouds and features lighting which changes from day to night in an hour), TV studios, beaches and scale-models of the Statue of Liberty, reached by automated elevated monorail, and thought the place strange, but went nowhere near actual rubbish, only this simulated cultural kind. Also, it's published by Dalkey Archive Press, my new favourite publisher.
There's comparisons to be made between this little-known novel by little-known author with the work of Osamu Dazai (featured below) and similarly pessimistic Japanese writers, particularly as articulated through a close understanding of physical artifacts and modern urban detritus. This is especially present in Hino, in an almost metaphysical sense: that the inanimate matter of contemporary society has eclipsed human life, and that human society is doomed to be overrun by its own waste.
With its blurring of the boundaries between dreams and waking life, inanimate objects and living beings, past and future, Isle of Dreams is also a lot like the later films of David Lynch, but given that Hino wrote it in 1985 its incredible how contemporary it reads. The manner in which the lead character, the widower Shozo Sakai, wanders haphazardly into strange, otherworldly scenarios also recalls the dream(y) sequences of Kazuo Ishiguro, specifically the battle scene of When We Were Orphans and the whole of The Unconsoled. Hino however is the less straightforward writer, creating more enigmatic scenes, and allowing his story to conclude without clear resolution. These are all commendable traits, and are brilliantly executed, and Isle of Dreams is among the most haunting and genuinely thrilling (in the sense of being energised by Hino's fictitious creations) novels I have read.
The narrative follows the gradual unravelling of Sakai, an office worker for a construction firm, from his harmless, lonely wanderings looking at modern buildings, through his growing obsession with the reclaimed land of Tokyo, to his nightmarish nocturnal excursions with a female motorcyclist and her son through bombed out relics of Tokyo bay islands. Mannequins appear to come to life, and window displays posses more reality than the 'real' scenes around them.
Hino's pessimistic philosophy is expressed through the thoughts of Sakai when charged by these new encounters, 'charged' in much the same way as the protagonist in Tom McCarthy's Remainder when experiencing reenactments, and presented in the book in italics. The most pointed of these occur when Sakai first visits the waste disposal site at Reclaimed Land Site #13:
Tokyo was expanding (vertically, having already reached its horizontal limits), brimming over with commodities (devoid of either the light or shadow of history), the ever-increasing refuse (with many items unnecessarily discarded) brought to life again between the water and the light (with glittering plastic bags and the wheezing cacophony of garbage)...

Tokyo Lives, thought Shozo. No, he pondered further, as he recalled the view he had just seen of the distant, smog-enshrouded city from atop the mound of refuse, "Tokyo" is only what we call a quivering, breathing, expanding presence, a shape maintained by the endless belching forth of waste, exhaust, sewer water, heat, radio waves, noise, and idle chatter; a circulatory mechanism, invisible but powerful, created and controlled by no one... And when I too have been twisted to the breaking point and cast upon the rubbish heap, will I too acquire light and shadow and begin to tell my story?
And later, upon entering a mannequin manufacturing warehouse:
The thickness of the hard concrete, the intersecting iron reinforcement bars, a steel frame holding up the broad, high roof... Shozo had walked around construction sites more times than he could count, but this was the first time he had felt so directly over the entire surface of his body the presence of cement and metal - their roughness and weight, their crushing oppression, the cracking sounds, the piercing smells, the colours of ash and rust, the bone-chilling cold... It is we who have bestowed on our country this hermetically sealed darkness, desolate and dead, where even the strange smelling air is stagnant.
Isle of Dreams is full of these quotable observations, all of which seem to perfectly embody contemporary hanutological musings and psychogeographic thoughts on non-spaces. Hino's supposed to be similar to Ballard, in which case I'd better read more Ballard. It's intoxicating, this uniquely Japanese cynicism and melancholia, and Hino adds to this by attempting to explore beneath this bleak surface, capturing the rotten, soul-destroying essence of contemporary society, and its in-built future destruction. I've been prattling on about this book to anyone who will listen, it's marvellous, and I hope Dalkey Archive, or anyone, translate his other works." - Joshualine

"If they hadn’t come from different publishers, I’d swear these two Japanese novels appeared in English as companion pieces. Despite great prestige racked up in their homeland, neither the names Keizo Hino nor Choukitsu Kurumatani ring many bells in literary Anglosphere. Both Hino’s Isle of Dreams and Kurumatani’s The Paradise Bird Tattoo (or, attempted double-suicide) star unattached fellows at a self-imposed distance from humanity. Both protagonists have their relaxed journeys toward nonexistence interrupted and their ever-narrowing worldviews distorted by complicated young women with dangerous lifestyles trailed by little boys who carry themselves as if they’ve seen too much. Both stories take place in the early 1980s, when the already fast-modernizing Japan shifted into an even higher, ostensibly world-surpassing gear. Both proceed inexorably toward a death.
But having only read three or four dozen Japanese novels in my time, I may have just latched onto qualities more experienced readers find everywhere in that country’s modern literature. Kobo Abe, one of the best-known Japanese novelists of Hino’s World War II generation, wrote his fair share of loners running into cryptically behaving ladies at society’s margins, and Haruki Murakami, certainly the best-known Japanese novelist of Kurumatani’s postwar generation, has just about unified his work with such characters. Now comes the perfect opportunity to let loose a few broad pronouncements on national artistic character, but forgive me if I let it slip through my fingers. Broad pronouncements can tire a writer, not to mention a reader, and besides, the fascination of these two novels all comes in their particulars.
Isle of Dreams’ middle-aged widower Shozo Sakai finds himself inexplicably drawn to a pile of trash. Built on some kind of floating landfill, the titular Tokyo Bay island would seem to fulfill only the dreams of a refuse department, but Shozo nonetheless draws nearer to it on a daily basis. A longtime employee of Japan’s busy construction industry, he first strays just outside his beloved nest of gleaming high-rises, eventually making his way to a patch of reclaimed land where leather-clad bikers congregate at dusk to buzz around in circles. One biker in particular captures his imagination, not least because her shell of gear muddles his expectations. (Yes, the old turns-out-there’s-a-woman-under-the-helmet-and-all-that-black-stuff, but I’ll hold my grumpy digressions about cliché in the interest of briskness and in light of Hino’s use of so little threadbare material otherwise.) One night she wipes out right in front of him, presenting an ideal opportunity to get to know her better.
Whether she takes a unique role in Shozo’s life depends on what kind of line of ontological distinctness you draw between her—the text just calls her “the woman”—and Yoko Hayashi, a mannequin-display professional whose work Shozo keeps spotting on one of his walks through the city. Taken with the haunted humanity she injects into storefront windows, he finds she looks, but doesn’t act, just like the woman on the motorcycle. We Superman-and-Clark-Kentishly never see Yoko and “the woman” together, and a patch of late-text narration from Yoko/”the woman” herself recounts the resolution of some sort of split-personality deal, but none of that reads as interestingly as Shozo’s developing parallel relationships with each woman, or each side of one woman, or each persona—whatever you need to call it.
While Yoko the mannequin-arranger whips out a host of oblique, unsettling tactics to rebuff Shozo’s curiosity, “the woman,” by way of an invisible raft to ride and with a preternaturally calm kid in tow, brings him on a series of night trips to an isolated, abundantly vegetated region of the trash heap. This veritable jungle grows, dies, and seemingly regrows with the elaborate consciousness and purpose of some life form out of a Hayao Miyazaki movie; no telling if the entity approves or disapproves of the trio’s presence, but it doesn’t particularly get along with modernity. Indeed, a Miyazaki-reminiscent environmentalist’s ethos makes itself felt throughout the book, as when mankind’s trash-strewing ways somehow lead to the mass deaths of herons all over this secluded junkpile. This sight strikes a chord in Shozo, who fatefully decides to manually dispose of all the bird corpses.
Shozo’s connection to society, such as he has them, comes only faintly, interpreted through the built and natural environments around him. Ikushima, the narrator of The Paradise Bird Tattoo, doesn’t even have that. Abandoning the novelist’s life for that of a penniless vagabond, he wanders his way to Amagasaki, which, for all its possible charms, comes off in his description as bleak hole breeding every variety of amorality. Landing in a dilapidated boarding house with a chanting prostitute on one side of him and a nihilistic tattoo artist on another, Ikushima works his days away taking deliveries of organ meat, putting the meat on skewers, and then sending the skewers to a restaurant. Just as the biker who had intrigued Shozo suddenly roars directly into his path, Ayako, an alluring flatmate of the tattoo artist turns up in Ikushima’s room one night, demanding sex. I’ve read worse catalysts for a plot.
And though Kurumatani gets much more plot going than does Hino, I report with relief that its mechanics don’t dominate the book. As Ayako’s unpredictable wishes become Ikushima’s commands, he comes to suspect that she leads an even more troubled life than her surroundings would indicate. Here Ikushima had worked for years toward his own kind of lone-wolf self-abnegation, and this woman introduces him to the web of complexities in which she writhes. Prostitution saturates Ikushima’s corner of Amagasaki, but this girl with a past—call her Ayako, or call her Aya-chan like Ikushima does, or call her by the name she went by in her homeland, Yi Munh-hyong—has fallen into an even worse situation than the sexagenarian former working girl who provides Ikushima’s lodging or the series of even more miserable current ones who briefly rent out the house’s other rooms.
Kurumatani presents what at first seems like a swirling cast of random lowlifes, but as Ikushima gets more involved in their dealings, little by little, the single network of thuggery that connects them all starts to show. All the shifty youngish men in the book, though only a few take on prominent presences, become difficult to tell apart. But as a whole, you’d never mistake them for the slick yakuza of classic Japanese gangster films, or even the two-bit hoods of more recent ones. Like insects, these guys operate on pure instinct, doing whatever their grimy ecosystem dictates as necessary for survival. As Ikushima finds, this involves everything from making clandestine money handoffs to sticking rivals into barrels of concrete to cutting off the tips of their own fingers to selling their sisters into sex slavery.
Whether through a skirmish in the war between man and nature in Isle of Dreams or one in the war between man and man’s nature in The Paradise Bird Tattoo, both protagonists wind up in what feel like impossible situations. Shozo, the woman, and the boy find periodic sanctuary within the angularity of concrete and steel only on an outgrowth of that world’s trash, but where do they go from there? Not to mention the intensifying psychological disturbances that separately—yet, of course, very similarly—affect the woman and Yoko. Ikushima and Ayako, on the run from their own obscure demons but also from the very concrete (as it were) threat of her criminal brother’s associates and competitors alike, grow convinced that they can find freedom only in their simultaneous deaths. But they’ve got a good thing going, in its twisted way—can they really bear to end it all?
Okay, perhaps one broad cultural pronouncement: Japanese drama seems to love impossible situations, of these kind or any other. Even in novels from Abe and Murakami or films fromYasujirō Ozu or Shohei Imamura, you see characters getting into near-existential fixes utterly bereft of unambiguous solutions again and again. A certain stripe of reader or viewer—my stripe of reader or viewer—finds this lack of traditional narrative satisfaction very satisfying indeed, or at least very true to their own psychology. Instead of delivering their characters from these grand internal and external conflicts, Hino and Kurumatani slip artfully out of their confines, building the substance of their books not out of the big questions—or, worse, the big statements—but out of fine physical grain.
Whatever issues these books come up against, they get there by the stench of organ meat, a woman’s thickly smudged eyeshadow, the hum of near-sentiently dense plant life, the groan of pain from under tattooers’ needles, and the color of a kimono scrap sprouting from society’s waste. Think of it as a “bottom-up” construction, which may or may not arrive at a set of big themes by way of small details, rather than a “top-down” construction, where an ostensible authorial interest in certain themes leads to the details presented. I’ve got plenty of room in my reading life for both kinds of fiction, but having grown up surrounded by the West’s great top-down novels, I feel the need to balance things out. Those who’d like to sate the same impulse without relying on the usual set of Japanese literary titans long at hand in English could do far worse than starting here." - Colin Marshall


Excerpt

When our consciousness begins to change, for better or for worse, events around us seem to fall into line, starting with mere coincidences, hardly worth noting. Of course, how could it be otherwise?

It was just after noon on a clear day in early spring. The trees along the avenues of the business district, in the center of the metropolis, not far from Tokyo Bay, had not yet sprouted any visible new growth. Sunk in shadows between the high-rises were still traces of cold air, but out in the sun, particles of light had begun frolicking with all the exuberance of life restored. A southerly wind sweeping through the streets stealthily brought moist air to the creases and countless tiny holes in the hard, dry asphalt surface.

On the sidewalks, men and women office workers on their lunch break passed to and fro. The rays of the sun sparkled—particularly on the lively laughter of young female clerks and on the edges of the magnificent first-floor show windows displaying high-fashion clothing and accessories.

It was the first truly springlike day, but in that business district at noontime there was otherwise nothing out of the ordinary.

As always, Shozo Sakai had gone from the construction firm where he worked to eat lunch in the basement Chinese restaurant of a building two blocks away and then enjoyed a short walk. Although already over fifty, he had not yet put on an ounce of fat, nor had his digestive system weakened with age. He took his daily stroll not for exercise but rather for the uplifting pleasure of passing by the many high-rises along the way.

Tokyo had its large office buildings—drab, makeshift affairs—hastily thrown together after the war, along with the so-called second-generation constructions built with some idea of design in mind. Here, however, everything was new, each endeavor having its own touch of individuality. Shozo was not indifferent to the charm of the quaint and stately pre-war structures that had survived the air raids, but he was invariably struck by the beauty of contemporary buildings, sharply geometrical in form, devoid of superfluous décor, adroitly bringing to the fore a texture that was both mineral and metallic.

Particularly when at dusk, the rain having lifted, he happened to see the clouds suddenly part and the sunlight break through the air like streams of golden arrows to illuminate the walls and windows of the high-rises, row upon row, he found himself, quite involuntarily, trembling with emotion.

Now, the noon sun had nothing extraordinary about it, none of the unexpected light effects of morning and evening. Yet the buoyant mood imparted to him by the delightful clarity of this midday respite took him farther down the street than was his habit.

He thought of nothing in particular, nor did he reminisce. He looked up into the sky; already it had begun to relinquish its winter harshness. Then, having thrown a cursory glance at the profile of the show-window mannequins, their heads slightly cocked to one side, he peered at the reflection of a building in the polished hood of a black automobile. As he again looked straight ahead, the building itself suddenly appeared directly before him.


This was not everything that he saw. There were the rough reddish-brown walls of a trust bank, the golden arabesque pattern surrounding the thick glass door, the dappled bark of the trees lining the street, three female office workers walking by together in bluish uniforms…Though nothing appeared out of the ordinary, it somehow looked like a double-exposed photograph, another scene having been superimposed.


In the dull, weak light of impending dusk on a cloudy day, there are rows of dark-red brick buildings—all equally squat and solid. From between the walls jut cement-coated posts, ravaged by wind and rain, with likewise weather-blanched, gray granite steps at each entrance, flanked by round stone pillars. On each edifice there is a copper plate embedded in the redbrick wall; on one of them he can make out the words "Mitsubishi House #21."

Here one can read free of charge newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, and books from the Soviet Union. There is no large reading room; the windows are small. The yellowish light of a tungsten lamp illuminates the cool, coldly hushed and stuffy interior. He can see the cover of a large-formatted journal: unadorned, powder-blue, poor-quality paper. He recognizes the title printed in cobalt ink: ОКТЯБРЬ. Named for the October Revolution, it is the organ of the Soviet Writers' Union.

It took him by surprise, but not such as to leave him standing breathless on the pavement. As unexpected as the vision of the redbrick buildings and the dark-blue Russian letters had been, it had also seemed quite natural—and had vanished as quickly as it had appeared.

9/27/11

Jack Saunders - The Madcap Titan of the Dustbin, The Salvage Archeologist of the Mall Builder Culture, The Swinette-Picker of American Letters, and America's Greatest Living Unpublished Writer, Perhaps the Greatest Unpublished Writer Ever


"Jack Saunders has produced a body of work, his stack, and invented a form to present it in, daily typewriting.

He has published fliers, pamphlets, chapbooks, books, and series of related books himself, through independent presses, and on the worldwide web.
He published his first chapbook, Playing Hurt, in 1976, after writing, and working as a laborer, for five years. His first book-length book, Screed, was published five years later, by Vagabond Press.
He first appeared on the worldwide web, at Out Your Backdoor, in 1996. He has had his own web site since 2000. He published 18 books at The Daily Bugle, 22 books at roman-feuilleton.com, and is currently publishing a book a month at The Daily Bulletin. Writing the Great American Novel on the Worldwide Web is part of JACK THE RAVER: THE CREATIVE NONFICTION BYLINED COLUMN NOVEL, his 238th book.
He has not sold a word to New York or Hollywood.
He calls himself, or has been called, The Madcap Titan of the Dustbin, The Salvage Archeologist of the Mall Builder Culture, The Swinette-Picker of American Letters, and America's Greatest Living Unpublished, or Underpublished Writer, Perhaps the Greatest Unpublished, or Underpublished American Writer Ever, which he shortens to "America's greatest writer."

Q: What is daily typewriting?
A: It's a cross between what Truman Capote said about Jack Kerouac, "That's not writing, it's typing," and what Milt Jackson said about Dizzy Gillespie, "Every time I hear Diz play, I think: `He was just now developing into what you heard tonight.'"
I am just now developing into what you read right here.
Also, I am writing a long series of connected works like Kerouac's Duluoz Saga, only with the real names left in. None of the trips combined or left out.
Q: Do you write every day?
A: I write every day.
I post what I have written on the worldwide web every day.
I answer reader comment in the next day's work. Sometimes for days after, as I think through what a reader told me.
Writing is a lonely activity.
You talk to your wife, after work, and your kids, on the weekends, and clerks, librarians, postal window-people, during the day, but you don't get a lot of feedback about your work from people who aren't reading your work. When you do, you listen to it.
Q: Who do you hear from?
A: Members of the Buzzard Cult.
Q: Who are the Buzzard Cult?
A: I call my coterie of steadfast readers the Buzzard Cult, after the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, a revitalization movement that swept the Lower Mississippi Valley just before and after European contact.
The Buzzard Cult was a mortuary complex, formed around interment of the dead.
I say I'm like an explosion in a charnel house.
From the gases from decomposing corpses.
Blaster Al drew a picture.
Q: Wow, that's neat.
A: Yes.
No readers, and you're crazy.
One reader and the two of you are just outnumbered.
A handful of readers, high one-, low two-figures, is a cult following.
Many writers only have a cult following, until they cross over from the underground to the mainstream.
I was a Charles Bukowski fan as soon as I read Post Office and his stories and poems in the NOLA Express.
Q: How long have you had a cult following.
A: I published Playing Hurt and Raw Energy in 1976. Sent them out to fans.
I was doing what I'm doing now, online, through the post, with pamphlets, chapbooks, fliers, and four-page sheets, since them. Since 1976.
I have published 227 pamphlets, chapbooks, fliers, and four-page sheets.
I published a couple of books in pamphlet form.
I xeroxed book-length manuscripts and sent them to people.
It's no insuperable burden to pay the reader to read your work.
Q: Do the Buzzard Cult read you online?
A: Yes, I have readers who read what I post online every day, when they drink their morning coffee.
Q: At home?
A: The ones who work at home. The ones who work, read it at work.
Q: So it's not like you were shouting into the void.
A: Pissing in the wind.
I know they're there, but I don't hear from them.
Who I do hear from is agents and editors.
And from them I get no reply or a form letter rejection slip.
Q: How do you deal with rejection?
A: I ignore it. I complain about it. I let it get me down. I shrug it off, and take care of business.
It's part of the racket. You get used to it.
Work through it."
Q: You have to work to support yourself. How do you combine writing and work?
A: I don't waste time.
I write before and after work.
I don't watch a lot of television.
If you don't watch television, you'd be surprised how much time you have.
Q: Don't you stare out of the window a lot?
A: I'm thinking. That's not wasted time.
I think on my walks, too. I used to walk a lot.
Q: How did you work as a laborer and write both?
A: I wrote in my head at work.
I could keep a day's writing in my head.
I went over it again and again, polishing it, refining it.
My job was mostly repetitive tasks, that didn't call for thinking, or close attention.
When I got home at night I would type up what I had written in my head at work.
It was like taking dictation.
Q: When you got a desk job, and had to write technical manuals, you must have had to think about what you were doing. How best to do it.
A: I was a quick study.
After you've done it once, it's repetitive.
But even the first time, I was an experienced writer. I had written term papers and site reports in college. And I had written nine novels. I was not an inexperienceds writer. I wasn't groping for words. I had a facility for it. A knack.
I could do my assigned work in a fraction of the time my co-workers needed to do the same work.
After I did my assigned work, I did my work.
At work.
Q: Did they know?
A: I was discreet about it. I didn't confront them with it. I snuck. We both looked the other way. Because I did a good job on their work.
I might say I have gotten too old to do that.
I can't motivate myself to do it.
I'm like a donkey. You beat him with a stick he won't get up. He just grits his teeth and takes the beating.. He might bite you if he sees a chance. For beating him.
Q: What is your goal, as a writer?
A: To get at and witness to the truth of who I am through daily typewriting.
Q: What truth is that? Have you got at it?
A: If you keep your eye on the lodestar, and create, you'll get there.
Don't quit, don't make excuses, complain, if you must: longing and regret are a part of the truth.
Q: Just what have you accomplished?
A: I produced a body of work, my stack, invented a form to present it in, daily typewriting, and found a medium to get it out to the reader through, a web site on the worldwide web and self-published pamphlets.
Q: How big is your stack?
A: 337 books. And growing.
Q: That's not chopped liver.
A: No.
I guess my goal now is not to quit, sell out, or turn bitter.
To see it through. Finish the job.
Not disgrace myself.
Not let the flag down.
Q: You're like Henry Darger, churning out your collections of black papers in your lonely room.
A: Yep. One day they'll find me slumped over my computer keyboard, dead.
My head exploded. From the pressure.
Q: What pressure?
A: Life. Work. The usual.
Ordinariness. The bills.
The constant attrition of the wood. That is, the nutmeg.
I fly the black flag of a pirate.
Being a pirate isn't easy. It takes its toll.
Q: Does your work have a theme, that runs throughout?
A: Vocation and career in conflict.
One time I took a writing seminar and they asked us to state our theme in five words or less and that's what I wrote down.
How do you get at, and witness to, the truth in a world that doesn't want it. That is hostile or indifferent to it.
How do you keep body and soul together when you keep getting your dick knocked in the dirt.
Q: How do you?
A: You get back up.
You grin your death's-head grin at them.
Q: What other writers influenced you?
A: Charles Bukowski and Charles Willeford.
Both worked in a variety of forms, both were fairly old, before success came, both were looked down on by the establishment. They were outsiders.
Bukowski was a Skid Row bum and Willeford was a retired master sergeant. A career enlisted man.
They both had a worldly sense of humor, they had been around, they didn't take it serious. They saw how things worked. From the bottom up.
They had swum in the shit.
Q: Let me throw some names at you.
A: Go ahead.
Q: Hunter S. Thompson.
A: I liked Hell's Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 1972, and "A Dog Took My Place," his account of the Pulitzer divorce trial.
The rest, he pissed it away, getting high and drinking. Cutting didoes.
Too bad he didn't get sober. He might have been something besides a magazine writer.
As it was, he was a hell of a magazine writer.
Q: Norman Mailer.
A: Alimony slave.
Wrote Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid and Guesswork and Bluster.
Marilyn and Marilyn: The Sequel.
Joe DiMaggio should have hunted him down and beat the shit out of him.
Q: He was a prizefighter.
A: Are you kidding. Mary McCarthy could have beat him up. I'm surprised Adelle didn't.
Q: Did any of his work influence you?
A: Yes. Advertisements for Myself.
Q: What about Hemingway?
A: He combined fiction and autobiography in interesting ways.
Death in the Afternoon, Green Hills of Africa, A Moveable Feast. The Gulf Stream fishing letters in Esquire.
He was a rummy. John Barleycorn got him.
Also, Life magazine got him. Being a movie star got him.
Q: Are your goals impractical?
A: I'm doing it.
They are immodest. That's why it's taking so long.
But they haven't stopped me.
Slap Out, Alabama (YU)--Writing in the Bukowski number of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Gerald Locklin says that, by publishing in fugitive little magazines and alternative, "underground" newspapers, Charles Bukowski enjoyed "the most freedom of any published writer in American literary history."
By going unpublished, underpublished, and self-published in beneath-the-underground web sites like The Daily Bulletin, Art "Home" Brew, compare art brut, Miami Bureau Chief, YU News Service, a parody news and disinformation syndicate, had more freedom than Bukowski.
That's an immodest goal.
But a practical way to go about reaching it.
I have more freedom than Bukowski.
And I got it by going unpublished, underpublished, and self-published.
Q: What advice would you give to younger writers, starting out?
A: William S. Burroughs told Jesse Bernstein, "Keep it in the family. Stick with your friends."
Don't outgrow your raisin'.
Your friends will tell you if you're fucking up.
They will cheer you up, when you are down. They're in the same boat.
Q: Is that what you get back from the Buzzard Cult?
A: Yes.
Honesty.
A sympathetic ear.
Understanding.
Q: Don't you know it's career suicide to call yourself a redneck?
A: Redneck gotta eat too.
Of course I know. I have been through Civil Rights, Women's Lib, Gay Pride, and the DC-10.
If you think I should have white guilt, over having white privilege, look around. You're up there and I'm down here.
You're doing better than I am whoever you are.
Q: You're doing okay.
A: Good enough.
For who it's for.


Jack Saunders' Stack. The titles, in alphabetical order:

1. 1984

2. A1A Stories

3. A Borrowed Bicycle Down Timeless Roads

4. A Couple of Heatherns

5. A Different Drummer

6. A Legend of the Underground

7. A Likely Lad

8. A Long Season

9. A Lot of Hash Marks for Very Few Stripes

10. A Modest Proposal

11. A New Leaf

12. A Poor Man's Like a Gopher in a Tub

13. A Postcard From Seaside: My Trip Around Florida's Emerald, and Florida's Forgotten Coasts

14. A Stationary Feast: Charles Willeford and the American Dream

15. A Straight White Male, From the South, of a Certain Age

16. A Summing Up: What I've Done So Far, and the Conditions I Did It Under

17. A Tale of Two Cities

18. A WPA Guide to Point and Shoot, Florida

19. Additional Material

20. Adventures in the Meat World

21. Adventures in the Underground

22. Airing Dirty Linen

23. Airman

24. America's Greatest Writer

25. An Even Hundred Books, Since Forty

26. An Even 300 Books, Since Forty

27. Anthropologist-in-Residence (AIR)

28. Apprentice

29. Art Brew: Recent Works on the Worldwide Web

30. Art Brew's Daily: News That Stays News

31. Art Brew's Secret Life: From Pamphlets to the Internet

32. As I Please

33. At-Large

34. At-Risk

35. At the House: A Campaign Journal

36. August 2008

37. Autobiographical Fiction, or the Fictional Autobiography: I Just Call It a Künstlerroman

38. Bad Habits

39. Badge of Honor: The Stigma of Self-Publication

40. Balder

41. Beat Poet

42. Best of Luck Placing It Elsewhere: A Life Outside of Letters

43. Bicycle Horn

44. Bill's Birthday

45. Billy Buck

46. Black Drink

47. Black Harvest

48. Black Harvest (Cont'd)

49. Blast

50. Blessed Is the Man Who's Found His Work

51. Blivet

52. Book

53. Botched Book: Damned by Dollars. Three Weeks in the Life of an Underground Writer

54. Botched Book: The Moby-Dick of How-To Underground-Writer Guides

55. Breakthrough

56. Brenda's Birthday

57. Brenda's Old Home Place

58. Broke-Dick Dog

59. Buck Sergeant

60. Bukowski Never Did This: A Year in the Life of an Underground Writer and His Family

61. Bushed

62. Casebook on Crank-Lettres Confidential: The Art Brew School of Daily Typewriting Writing

63. Christmas Stories

64. Christmas Stories

65. Compositions

66. Coming Up for Air

67. Congeries: A Heap, or Pile

68. Conversations with Myself and Others

69. Cookin'

70. Cracker

71. Cracker Power

72. Cult Writer

73. Cult Writer

74. Cunning

75. Cursed By Fate

76. Cussedness and Gumption

77. Custodian

78. Daily Typewriting

79. Daily Typewriting (cont'd)

80. Daily Typewriting: An Online Journal (OLJ)

81. Daily Typewriting Forever: Something New Under the Sun

82. Daily Typewriting: The Mechanics of the Craft

83. Dancing About the Rim of the Crater

84. Daybook: Poems, Stories, Letters, Interviews, Journal Entries

85. Dean

86. Debacle

87. Declaring Victory: The Underground Writer (Art Brew) Who Changed the Art of Novel-Writing, Posting His Daily Typewriting Online, Daily, for Years

88. Diamond in the Rough

89. Diary of an Angry Would-Be Writer

90. Dieseling

91. Die Trying: A Dread Clampett Novel, with Additional Features at the End and Wrestles All Comers: The Dread Clampett Tour and Under Construction

92. Dirt Archeologist

93. Dirt Archeology

94. Dis Here: Hope and Horrible Wasted Foolishness, Locked in Carnal Embrace

95. Distance Learning

96. Disturber of the Peat Moss

97. Don't Drink and or Drive

98. Doolalli Tap

99. Double-Ought

100. Dragging Up: Art Brew Gives Himself an LDA Grant (Last Ditch Attempt)

101. Dread Clampett

102. Drunk as a Bicycle

103. E Pluribus Unum

104. Eat My Dust

105. Education

106. Eighty-Sixed

107. Employment History

108. Enough About Me--How Did You Like My Book: 139 Testimonials in Honor of Jack Saunders on His 35th Anniversary as a Writer

109. Evil Genius

110. Exile

111. Fear of the Sack

112. Feast of Flowers

113. Festival

114. Fighting Roosters: A Hard-Boiled Appreciation of Charles Willeford

115. Final Cut

116. Fired for Blogging; Book Rejected: Writing the Black Novel After 9-11

117. Fishing Stories, or, Beer-Can Island

118. Florida Boy

119. Florida Writer

120. Florida Writer: A Life Under Erasure (Sous Rature)

121. Flush

122. Folk Master

123. Fool's Paradise

124. Fortune's Favorite Child

125. Forty

126. Four Views of Mt. Fuji

127. Free Jazz

128. Friends

129. Frog

130. Garlic Power

131. GI

132. Global Village Village Idiot

133. Gob of Spit

134. Goldbrick

135. Grand Retrieval

136. Greatest Hits Boxed Set: A Pretty Fair Country Writer in a Subgenre Filled with Second-Raters

137. Griping, Testimony, or Confessions

138. Gulf Coast Blues

139. Gulf Coast Blues: A Month in the Life of Florida Chronicler Contender Razz Heap, The Happiest Man Alive

140. Guy Lit

141. Hack Writer

142. Halloween

143. Heap

144. Hiatus

145. Highway 30A Stories

146. Home Movies

147. Homecoming

148. Homestead

149. Honors and Awards

150. Hospitality Industry Report Writer and Folk Art Critic

151. Househusband, or, The King of Daily Typewriting

152. I Accuse

153. I Drive to Fairhope, Alabama

154. I Drive to Ojus

155. I, Motingator

156. I Regret Nothing: An Underground-Writer Procedural Novel

157. I Remember

158. I Remember Yeats

159. Immobilized in Parker: The Retirement Year

160. Immobilized in Point and Shoot: A Comic Novel

161. If We Make It Through December: Vignettes and Feuilletons

162. In Glorious Black and White

163. In My Room: Immobilized in Point and Shoot

164. In the Maelstrom

165. In the Wind

166. In Real Time: Writing, Publishing, and Selling Books Along the Redneck Riviera

167. Information Specialist

168. Inside Underground Writing: Two Zine Fests, a Hootenanny, and a Side-Trip to Paradise Garden, with a Death in the Family, in Between

169. Jack the Raver: Heap Drags Up

170. Jack the Raver: The Creative Nonfiction Bylined Column Novel

171. January

172. Journal of a Memoir

173. Journeyman

174. Joy Spring

175. Jubilee

176. Jupiter

177. Keep Up the Good Work

178. Keratodontalism Forever!

179. Laborer

180. Laborer

181. Large Pyle's Last Writers Conference

182. Leprous Hotdog

183. Log of a Big Hat

184. Loony Tunes



Saunders archive

9/16/11

Jan Morris - An idiom of the impenetrable. An extraordinary place that never was, but could well be: its enigmas are part of its accuracy

Jan Morris, Hav, New York Review Books Classics, 2011.



"Hav is like no place on earth. Rumored to be the site of Troy, captured during the crusades and recaptured by Saladin, visited by Tolstoy, Hitler, Grace Kelly, and Princess Diana, this Mediterranean city-state is home to several architectural marvels and an annual rooftop race that is a feat of athleticism and insanity. As Jan Morris guides us through the corridors and quarters of Hav, we hear the mingling of Italian, Russian, and Arabic in its markets, delight in its famous snow raspberries, and meet the denizens of its casinos and cafés.
When Morris published Last Letters from Hav in 1985, it was short-listed for the Booker Prize. Here it is joined by Hav of the Myrmidons, a sequel that brings the story up-to-date. Twenty-first-century Hav is nearly unrecognizable. Sanitized and monetized, it is ruled by a group of fanatics who have rewritten its history to reflect their own blinkered view of the past.
Morris’s only novel is dazzlingly sui-generis, part erudite travel memoir, part speculative fiction, part cautionary political tale. It transports the reader to an extraordinary place that never was, but could well be."

“After reading Last Letters from Hav, what travel writer would ever want to report from an actual place? . . . a vigorous literary hybrid; elegant fiction in its own right but also a respectfully witty homage to indomitable English travel writers like Lawrence, Burton and Blanch.”—Elaine Kendall

“Jan Morris has marshaled reportorial insight and literary flair to describe nearly every interesting place on the planet. Unique among them is Hav, which she revisits in her latest, perhaps most insightful book yet.” —Donald Morrison

“Taken for the real thing on its first publication in 1985, this faux-travel memoir prompted fruitless calls to confused travel agents. It's no wonder: Morris's imagination is a marvel, her spectral country fully realized and fascinating. Hav, an eastern Mediterranean peninsula, rises believably in the mind, with its city skyline of onion domes, minarets, and one incongruous pagoda along with its glorious and complex history. Hav's past is ingeniously, believably intertwined with real events; its present is realistically faded and isolated, adding to the eerie feeling one gets of spying on a lost world.” — Publishers Weekly

"When Last Letters from Hav was published (and shortlisted for the Booker prize) in 1985, Jan Morris's well-deserved fame as a travel writer, and the unfamiliarity of many modern readers with the nature of fiction, caused unexpected dismay among travel agents. Their clients demanded to know why they couldn't book a cheap flight to Hav. The problem, of course, was not 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.
Now, after 20 years, Morris has returned to Hav, and enhanced, deepened and marvellously perplexed her guidebook by the addition of a final section called "Hav of the Myrmidons". To say that the result isn't what the common reader expects of a novel is not to question its fictionality, which is absolute, or the author's imagination, which is vivid and exact.
The story is episodic, entirely lacking in "action" or "plot" of the usual sort; but these supposed narrative necessities are fully replaced by the powerful and gathering direction or intention of the book as a whole. It lacks another supposed necessity of the novel: characters who, while they may represent an abstraction, also take on a memorable existence of their own. Like any good travel writer, Morris talks to interesting people and reports the conversations. And people we met in the first part of the book turn up in the second part to take us about and exhibit in person what has happened to their country; but I confess I barely remembered their names when I met them again. Morris's gift is not portraiture, and her people are memorable not as individuals but as exemplary Havians.
This lack of plot and characters is common in the conventional Utopia, and I expect academics and other pigeonholers may stick Hav in with Thomas More and co. That is a respectable slot, but not where the book belongs. Probably Morris, certainly her publisher, will not thank me for saying that Hav is in fact science fiction, of a perfectly recognisable type and superb quality. The "sciences" or areas of expertise involved are social - ethnology, sociology, political science, and above all, history. Hav exists as a mirror held up to several millennia of pan-Mediterranean history, customs and politics. It is a focusing mirror; its intensified reflection sharply concentrates both observation and speculation. Where have we been, where are we going? Those are the questions the book asks. It poses them through the invention of a place not recognised in the atlas or the histories, but which, introduced plausibly and without violence into the existing world, gives us a distanced, ironic and revelatory view of everything around it. The mode is not satiric fantasy, as in the islands Gulliver visited; it is exuberantly realistic, firmly observant, and genuinely knowledgeable about how things have been, and are now, in Saudi Arabia, or Turkey, or Downing Street. Serious science fiction is a mode of realism, not of fantasy; and Hav is a splendid example of the uses of an alternate geography. If, swayed by the silly snobbery of pundits as contemptuous of science fiction as they are ignorant of it, you should turn away from Hav, that would be a shame and a loss.
It is not an easy book to describe. Hav itself is not easy to describe, as the author frequently laments. As she takes us about with her in her travels of discovery, we grow familiar with the delightful if somewhat incoherent Hav of 1985. We climb up to its charming castle, from which the Armenian trumpeter plays at dawn the great lament of Katourian for the knights of the First Crusade, the "Chant de doleure pour li proz chevalers qui sunt morz". We visit the Venetian Fondaco, the Casino, the Caliph, the mysterious British Agency, the Kretevs who inhabit caves up on the great Escarpment through which the train, Hav's only land link to the rest of Europe, plunges daily down a zigzag tunnel. We see the Iron Dog, we watch the thrilling Roof Race. But the more we learn, the greater our need to learn more. A sense of things not understood, matters hidden under the surface, begins to loom; even, somehow, to menace. We have entered a maze, a labyrinth constructed through millennia, leading us back and back to the age of Achilles and the Spartans who built the canal and set up the Iron Dog at the harbour mouth, and before that to the measureless antiquity of the Kretevs, who are friends of the bear. And the maze stretches out and out, too, half around the world, for it seems that Havian poetry was deeply influenced by the Welsh; and just up the coast is the westernmost of all ancient Chinese settlements, which Marco Polo found uninteresting. "There is nothing to be said about Yuan Wen Kuo," he wrote. "Let us now move on to other places."
Achilles and Marco Polo aren't the half of it. Ibn Batuta came to Hav, of course, all the great travellers did, and left their comments, diligently quoted by the Havians and Morris. TE Lawrence may have discovered a secret mission there; Ernest Hemingway came to fish and to carry off six-toed cats. Hav's glory days of tourism were before the first world war and again after it, when the train zigzagged through its tunnel laden with the cream of European society, millionaires and rightwing politicians; but whether or not Hitler was actually there for one night is still a matter of dispute. The politics of Hav itself in 1985 were extremely disputable. Its religions were various, since so many great powers of the east and west had governed it over the centuries; mosques and churches coexisted amicably; and indeed the spiritual scene was so innocuous as to appear feeble - a small group of hermits, reputed to spend their days in holy meditation, proved to be cheerfully selfish hedonists who simply enjoyed asceticism. And yet, and yet, there were the Cathars. Late in her first visit, Morris was taken in darkness and great secrecy to witness a sitting of the Cathars of Hav - a strange ritual conclave of veiled women and cowled men. In some of them Morris thought she recognised friends, guides, the trumpeter, the tunnel-pilot... but she could not be sure. She could not be sure of anything.
On her return 20 years later, some things appear to be all too certain. The old Hav is gone, destroyed in an obscure event called the Intervention. The train is gone, a huge airport is under construction. Ships come in to a destination resort called Lazaretto! (the punctuation is part of the name) of the most luxuriously banal kind, where, as a middle-aged lady tourist remarks, one feels so safe. The strange old House of the Chinese Master is a burnt ruin; the new landmark is a huge skyscraper called the Myrmidon Tower, "a virtuoso display of unashamed, unrestricted, technically unexampled vulgarity". The English Legate is at least as sinister and much slimier than his predecessor, the British Agent. Most of the city has been rebuilt in concrete. The troglodytic Kretev are housed in hygienic villas, and the bears are extinct. The age of postmodernism has arrived, with its characteristically brutal yet insidious architecture and propaganda, its reductionist culture of advertisement and imitation, its market capitalism, its factionalism and religiosity forever threatening terror. Yet we find pretty soon that Hav is still Hav: the maze, the labyrinth, is still there. Even the elevator of the Myrmidon Tower is indirect. Who in fact is running the country? The Cathars? But who are the Cathars? What does the M on the Myrmidon Tower really stand for?
Morris says in the epilogue that if Hav is an allegory, she's not sure what it is about. I don't take it as an allegory at all. I read it as a brilliant description of the crossroads of the west and east in two recent eras, viewed by a woman who has truly seen the world, and who lives in it with twice the intensity of most of us. Its enigmas are part of its accuracy. It is a very good guidebook, I think, to the early 21st century." - Ursula K Le Guin

"William Gibson writes of "a prose-city, a labyrinth, a vast construct the reader learns to enter by any one of a multiplicity of doors... It turns there, on the mind's horizon, exerting its own peculiar gravity... It is a literary singularity." This city seems to exist outside of time, yet moves within it. One can never be sure.
Gibson was writing about the fictional city of Bellona from Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren, yet his words apply equally - if not more so - to another fictional city: that of Hav, the singular creation of the renowned and prolific Welsh travel writer, historian, and novelist Jan Morris.
Morris brought Hav into the world in 1985 as Last Letters From Hav, short-listed for that year's Man Booker Prize. She returned to Hav in 2006 with Hav of the Myrmidons, a single volume with a reprinting of the original Last Letters, which was a finalist for the 2007 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Now, the New York Review of Booksis bringing that combined volume to American readers under its Classics imprint.
Hav is a work of fiction unlike any other I've read. Narrated by the character Jan Morris, Hav unfolds entirely as a travel narrative, as seemingly veridical as anything Paul Theroux or Lawrence Durrell would pen. In fact, upon its publication, readers overwhelmed Morris inquiring where exactly Hav could be found, how to get there, whether a visa was necessary or not. Even the Royal Geographical Society wanted to know, according to Morris's epilogue.
Accordingly, the novel begins with Morris's arrival in Hav, itself hazily located somewhere on the eastern Mediterranean. She explores the city, a register of millennia of human history, founded by migratory Celtic tribes or ancient Ionians, perhaps by Achilles himself. Conquered in turn by Arabs, who held it until the Crusades intervened for a century, it served as the fulcrum of the Silk Road for four hundred years, at which point it passed into the hands of the Seljuk Turks, the British Empire for a short time, the Russian Empire until the Revolution, and a Tripartite Mandate of France, Italy, and Germany between the wars.
Its onetime visitors and residents represent a veritable who's who of world history and culture: Ibn Battuta, Hemingway, Diaghilev and Nijinsky, Mann, Freud, Cavafy, Churchill, Joyce, maybe Hitler, though that's far from certain. Every faith has a place here: from the Grand Mosque of Malik in the Medina, to the Greek Orthodox church on the small island of San Spiridon, to scattered Buddhist and Hindu temples, a synagogue, and churches of every Christian sect.
The reader follows Morris as she tries to navigate this unreal city, with its multifarious architectural styles, Babel of languages, mélange of smells and sounds. She familiarizes herself with its cafes, its music, its trademark urchin soup and snow raspberries. She attends the Roof Race (which is exactly what it sounds like), and her descriptions of the frenzy of the crowd tearing through the city to follow the athletes running and jumping across alleyways above is among the more riveting parts of the novel.
One could go on for some length and is tempted to, for Morris's prose is so resplendent and exacting in its erudition and craftsmanship. Her knowledge of Mediterranean history and culture shines through on every page, and her attention to seemingly minor details, such as witnessing two elderly Buddhist monks alone in a crowd of merchants purchasing saffron, for instance, preserve the veneer of an "official" travel narrative.
Ultimately, though, Hav is a place utterly fluid, where identity is consistent only in its Heraclitean flux. History swirls around Hav, yet always inchoate, subject to the whims, distortions, and sedimented agendas of countless peoples of countless factions over countless years. And like that other fictional city Bellona, Hav is a mystery in which nothing is as it seems - or maybe everything is exactly as it seems until it changes into something else, until over time everything possible in human history has already happened, is still happening, and will happen again. Last Letters from Hav, indeed, ends with a cataclysm known as the Intervention, the details of which the reader is never entirely informed.
One is reminded of Borges's "The Library of Babel," and Borges's ghost clearly walks through the streets of Hav. This is mostly implicit in Last Letters From Hav, though Morris does inform the reader that "The maze is so universal a token of Hav, appears so often in legends and artistic references of all kinds, that one comes to take it for granted." According to Morris, "It certainly seems true that if there is one constant factor binding the artistic and creative centuries together, it is an idiom of the impenetrable... [The artists of Hav] have loved the opaque more than the specific, the intuitive more than the rational."
The connection to the concept of the labyrinth, both physical and metaphysical, is made far more explicit in Hav of the Myrmidons, in which Morris returns to a post-Intervention Hav that has been forever altered. Gone are the domes, spires, meandering streets, and chaotic din of old Hav, which have been replaced by a Chinese-financed "brand-new metropolis of mirror-glass, steel and concrete, metallic, regimented." The old city has been cut off from its garden island of Lazaretto, which has become a sort of contemporary Dubai -- a glittering playground of luxury designed for foreign nouveaux riches aptly renamed Lazaretto! Morris soon finds, however, that the seeming regimentation and rationalization of the city she knew has in no way reduced its vertiginous complexity.
The entropic despotism of old Hav has been replaced by a nightmare surveillance state styling itself the Holy Myrmidonic Republic, the symbol of which is a two-thousand-foot tower soaring above the resort of Lazaretto! and adorned at its spire by a giant illuminated M, which continually changes color. The new Hav, as is clear to Morris, is a complete simulacrum of a farce. The HMR prevents tourists from entering the old city (Morris has a two-week visa with an exemption, thanks to some old acquaintances), monitors every conversation, produces genetically-modified snow raspberries (in an Atwoodian touch, renamed "Havberries") with imported labor from Uzbekistan and Afghanistan to can and export, and has rewritten and whitewashed its jumbled history to present the most sanitary face to potential foreign investors.
While Hav of the Myrmidons feels a little too obviously polemic -- and perhaps that's because the current dystopian moment has witnessed Atwood's two most recent novels, The Hunger Games trilogy, and Super Sad True Love Story, not to mention the events of the six years intervening -- Morris's prose remains crisp and effusive as in the earlier work. If the allegory of Hav is that identity and history are just as malleable and in flux as topography, the two halves complement each other quite effectively.
Of course, Morris herself says in the epilogue that even she doesn't know whether an essential allegory of Hav exists, which is most likely the point. At any rate, this volume contains a lifetime worth of sensual experience, and some of the most luminous and unforgettable writing I have ever encountered." - Benjamin Taylor

"In 1985, Jan Morris created a fictional city-state in the Mediterranean. Hav confounded readers and critics: where was this place that was part-European, part-Asian, part-Arabic? According to Morris, only one person, an octogenarian from Iowa, guessed the true nature of Hav: that it was an allegory of the 20th century. Now, 20 years later, Morris returns to her beloved Hav to find its diversity muffled, its traditions glossed and fictionalised for the benefit of the tourists.
The original Hav, depicted in Last Letters From Hav, reprinted here along with a sequel, Hav of the Myrmidons, is brought vividly to life. Places are described with such detail that they must surely be real: Marco Polo, Lawrence of Arabia, Freud, Cavafy and le Carre have all, we are told, visited. You desperately want the place to exist, with all its idiosyncrasies - the snowberries that ripen only 'when the early spring suns melt the last of the escarpment's winter snows'; the lethal Roof-Race which is to the people of Hav 'as the bull-running is to Pamplona'; the troglodyte Kretevs, caretakers of the bears of Hav, whose caves are redolent of 'a thick, warm, furry, licked smell'. Morris's style is as easy as her Havians' way of life: relaxed, yet ever-flowing.
Morris's narrator is a visitor to and an observer of this city-state, yet little of her own character is apparent, other than in her painstaking attention to detail and a fondness for the imaginary. In her conclusion to Last Letters ... , Morris sets about destroying her creation. She is a writer bold enough not to feel the need to explain everything into banality, so we are not told why and you feel only an enormous sense of loss.
Hav of the Myrmidons is an essay on the vulgarity and ambition of modernity. Twenty years on, Morris is persona non grata and must obtain a pass to travel Hav's roads, most of which are unrecognisable since 'the Intervention'. Hav has become a futuristic, soulless capsule. Morris's disappointment with 21st-century 'progress' in Hav is tangible from the first page: the snowberries, once almost unobtainable and phenomenally expensive, are now genetically modified and available in cans in every supermarket; the Roof-Race has been simplified, rigged with safety nets to conform to health and safety directives, while the bears are dead (the last two on show in the museum) and the Kretevs have been moved from their caves to sanitised accommodation blocks with central heating.
Again, Morris is careful not to over-explain Hav's transformation and you share with her a feeling of shock, loss and nostalgia for an older, more dignified way of life. The narrator's character tiptoes to the forefront and you are reminded of a tale in Last Letters ... about the House of the Chinese Master, about which Sigmund Freud writes: 'It is as though I have lived within the inmost cavity of a man's mind.' Every artwork betrays something of its creator, but Morris's Hav, in which her fiction is sustained with such conviction, is more vividly a map of a creator's mind, in which she is a benevolent, concerned god mourning the wilful destruction of beauty, idiosyncrasy and tradition." - Zoe S Green

"In the nonfictional epilogue to her fictional travelogue Hav, Jan Morris ends with words from the German Romantic writer Novalis: "Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history."
History's shortcomings are the impetus, material, and theme of Hav, a remarkably subtle book, a novel of indirections that presents an imaginary (and richly imagined) geography and history for a Mediterranean nation called Hav, a country that incorporates the potentials and mysteries of various real societies and cultures. Morris takes the details of recorded histories and visitable places and turns them into the stuff of a vivid dream, then uses the dream to meditate on the currents of history that shape the world we perceive as real, the present moments that get abstracted and represented by historians.
Hav is an alternate world, a possible place, a nation found only on lost maps and in imprecise memories. Morris first introduced it in 1985 in a book, Last Letters from Hav, that now makes up the first two-thirds of this one. Until that time she was known as a writer of nonfiction, and some readers, she notes in the epilogue to Hav,
thought it described a real place, incomprehensibly little-known. They asked me how to get there. They wanted to know if one needed a visa. Even somebody at the Map Room of the Royal Geographical Society asked me to put him straight about Hav's location. (p. 298)
Any reader could wonder if Hav might actually be a place one should put on a vacation itinerary. The entire presentation is matter-of-fact: Morris uses a narrator named Jan Morris, there are references to numerous historical figures and events, and the utterly straightforward tone reveals not a whisper of irony. The book is not a parody or a satire, and for much of the first part of Hav, it seems as if the words do nothing more than guide us through the details of a place that does not exist. (As I was reading the first hundred pages or so, there were many moments when I thought Hav felt like a worldbook for a roleplaying game nobody has yet created.)
But Hav is more than just a hoax-like gazeteer, and it is in this more that the genius lies. Hav builds up in our minds through an agglutination of details—details of buildings and people, of foods and clothes, of traditions and histories. We learn about the trumpeter Katourian, stabbed at the finish of a failed siege by Crusaders; we see the various buildings and institutions of government; we visit homes and cafés, a market and a draper's shop; we stroll through streets, learning their shapes and sounds and smells; we talk with people from all the various nationalities and ethnicities housed by Hav—the Muslims and the Christians, the Chinese and the Turks, the atheist monks, the indigenous Kretevs who live in splendid caves and are known by all as "the troglodytes," and the Cathars who hold secret, mysterious, myth-laden gatherings.
"I know of nowhere in the world where the purpose of life seems so ill-defined," Morris's fictional self says in the third chapter, summing up a feeling most readers will have gotten from her peregrinations up to that point. The emphasis, though, belongs on the seems. We are given the surface of Hav, the naïve first impression of a place, and then that surface is complexified, and the first impressions, the fancies and fantasies, are unravelled, until what falls apart is not only narrator-Morris's own perception of Hav's truth, but the place itself. The imagined reality of Hav is a precariously balanced utopia, a place where the fault lines of cultures can exist without quite quaking—but then they do quake, and things fall apart, and Morris presents us with a narrator-Morris who cannot understand what has happened, who is left with only the option to leave, because such a society as she had construed cannot hold itself together, a fragment of impressions, a lost world that loses itself.
All of the details, it turns out, were not the real story. The real story lies beneath and beside. An alert reader will remember details that now spring open like booby traps, revealing alternate readings, so that the book becomes a palimpsest of itself, a snake eating the textual skin it sheds. The last pages of the original Last Letters from Hav are unsettling in every sense of the word, and Morris was a bold and visionary enough writer then to let all ambiguities stand, to tie nothing up, to pretend no knowledge.
Unlike readers in 1985, though, we can now move on into a new section of the book, "Hav of the Myrmidons," where Morris imagines traveling to Hav twenty years later. Much has happened, both in Hav and in the world beyond it. The tensions narrator-Morris was late to notice in Last Letters from Hav led, we learn, to tremendous destruction, followed by reconstruction (and re-creation) by the Cathars, who came to power, memorialized their myths, and instituted bureaucratic despotism and capitalist kitsch:
It looked very different from the Hav I remembered. Gone was the esoteric skyline of turrets, minarets, and gilded domes. Only the castle still stood on its crag high above. For the rest, all was a grey flattish blur of new buildings, low and flat, with a minaret protruding here and there, and a distant jumble of masts and riggings at the waterfront, but none of the gaudy eclecticism that made the old city so compelling. (p. 198)
Most of what was once unique about Hav has been either wiped out or commodified, and in the empty spaces left by destruction appear grandiose buildings and ridiculous resorts, the architecture of global capital, the concrete aspirations of an aesthetically blind and culturally tone-deaf regime determined to mold Hav into the shape of its own hubris. This brings the book close to satire, but satire needs some embellishment, and how embellished, really, is a society numbed by the gravitational forces of its orthodoxies? The Hav of "Hav of the Myrmidons" is recognizable to anybody who has stepped outside this morning. Nonetheless, there are still mysteries to Hav, and still wonders. The wonders now are hidden in the margins, and Morris glimpses them before, once again, leaving the place abruptly, with most questions still unanswered, most mysteries still intact.
"Hav of the Myrmidons" works, then, not only as an extension of the story in Lost Letters from Hav, but as a reinterpretation. It reconstructs the foreground of the story from its background, giving us a similar structure and different emphases. Time has affected not only the place, but the narrator's reading of the place, and thus it affects our own re-reading. The book as a whole expands and expands again our understanding of the place described, and reminds us how limited this understanding is. The new section of the book gives Hav a newly vivid reality by preserving and extending the immensity of all that can't be known.
The magnificence of Hav lies not only in the magnificence of Hav, which Morris has imagined with extraordinary care, but in the way the unreal place is used as a tool for perception. There is, first, the perception of the narrator, and most of the surface story lies there: we watch narrator-Morris observing, experiencing, and interpreting what author-Morris has dreamed up. The satisfaction of the book, though, comes with a perception of all that is below the surface, the mysteries and enigmas, the shadows behind the words. Much great fiction explores perception, and Hav is both an exploration and an exploration of that exploration—its depth and richness derive from all the nested implications, the endless possibilities. There is no "story" in the traditional sense of the word, though there are many events; the events are linked together, though, not so much by a sequence of actions as by a continuous perception. The main character of Hav is, indeed, Hav itself, and what we watch is the ways it changes, and the ways those changes are noticed and discussed by the characters who flit in and out of the book, and by the narrator, who is the only character to remain consistently with us. The narrative strategies mix elements from various sorts of memoir with those of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century "imaginary voyage" stories and utopian novels, plus some sleight-of-hand tricks learned from Modernist masters and Latin American magical realists, creating a book that could be described as the novel Borges might have written if he'd been inclined to write a novel (and been more politically astute).
Except such a statement, though it perhaps conveys a certain sense of Hav, is too reductive for what Morris has accomplished here in a book that is quietly but consistently true to its own internal logic, and to the vision it presents. The proof of Hav's excellence lies in its inability to be summarized in any satisfactory way. The book, then, is like the place it describes: impossible to pin down, an evocative enigma, a dream construction that spreads itself beyond the borders of a dream." - Matthew Cheney

"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

"A few years ago I let it be known that I would publish no more books. Everyone scoffed - ha, ha, you know what writers are, they said - but I meant it, and I have kept my word. Well, sort of. I had been writing almost without taking breath for half a century and more, and without a book in progress life seemed flaccid. I felt like Othello when he found his occupation gone. I recognised in myself the symptoms I had described in others - elderly businessmen no longer interested in the stock market, ageing musicians who didn't bother to go to concerts, clergymen emeritus developing doubts or multitudinous pensioners who preferred, on the whole, not to read the obituaries.
I was perhaps being economical with the truth when a book of mine about my house in Wales came out in America, and I was obliged limply to explain that I had actually written most of it before I took my oath of retirement. And I did cheat rather by publishing the odd essay, partly to supplement my fast-declining book royalties, partly for the plain pleasure of tinkering with ideas and pursuing allegories - for the older I get, the more the matter of allegory engages me.
But now I have circumvented my resolution in a different, and sneakier, way. Twenty-odd years ago I wrote a fantasy describing my own entirely fictional residence in an altogether imaginary city, somewhere on the Levantine fringes of Europe. It was my only novel, and I wrote it off the top of my head. As I have often heard novelists say, I really did not know what it was all about, or what was going to happen next. The book ended with the brutal decimation of Hav by some unnamed hostile power, and both the reader and (believe me) the author were left wondering what it had all meant.
I had intended it to be part entertainment, but chiefly allegory. I felt that in all my years of writing about places, especially cities, I had never really mastered their deeper meanings - had not penetrated their economic truths, or grasped their profounder social implications -and I was hoping to express these complex uncertainties in the text of my faux travel book. Only one reader, so far as I know, recognised it as allegory at all. Nearly everybody else thought it really was a travel book, and wrote to ask me if they needed visas to go there.
I re-read it a couple of years ago, and found it unexpectedly ambiguous. Its allegory was plain enough to me, but its allusions and mock quotations, which I had intended chiefly as entertainment, now seemed to me strangely subtler… And I was oddly disturbed to realise that there was also an element of the prophetic to it, for the sudden, savage, ill-understood assault upon Hav, which evidently occurred in 1985, seemed to me to have pre-figured Al-Qaeda's destruction of the World Trade Centre, 16 years later.
Idly at first, it occurred to me to wonder then what had happened to my chimerical city in the years since the 1985 catastrophe - known in Hav, I gather, as the Intervention: and gradually, shamefacedly, I resolved to make another book of it. Oh, how people would scoff! Another book after all! Didn't they always say so? A little American book about my house might be overlooked, but a brand new novel, published in London under the Faber imprint, was another thing. I imagined catty little paragraphs at the bottom of literary columns, and snide jokes at literary parties apropos the multiple retirements of Frank Sinatra.
So what I have done is this: I have not written a new book at all. I have written a long addendum to an old one, and my obliging publishers have bound the two parts in one and called it simply Hav. And the allegory I conceived for the first part, Last Letters from Hav, is extended to include the second part, Hav of the Myrmidons: 20 years on, the mysteries that infused the one have been transmuted by the tragedy of the Intervention to infect the second one, too.
What am I talking about? Search me. I don't know what it all means. I see the whole Hav invention as through a glass, darkly, and even the fact that the new book is only half a new book seems allegorically proper to its themes - which are themes of historical confusion, themes of contradiction, dressed up in the garments of travel writing by an octogenarian writer… At the very end, the German novelist Novalis (1772-1801) gives me an epilogue for my riddles: novels arise, he wrote, out of the shortcomings of history.
It really will be my last book. Well, sort of. You remember those belles-lettres that I have been amusing myself with, since the time of my renunciation? Well, dear old Faber has agreed to make a book of them, to be published, I hope, the day after my death. It will be a posthumous work, which surely doesn't count, and I have called it Allegorisings." - Jan Morris

"Notes on Hiraeth: The Work of Jan Morris
In an essay about the ancient Greek concept of the daimon (which the Romans would rename the genius), Guy Davenport balks at the notion of “writing as self-expression” and writes, “The business of a writer is to show others how you see the world so that they will then have two views of it, theirs and yours.”
For sixty years now, Jan Morris has been following her daimon from city to city and giving us her highly individual view of the world. She has been an evocative historian and the keenest observer of the present; a chronicler of cities in their springtime and in their decline, and of cities both real and imaginary; a Welsh nationalist and an elegist of the British Empire; and, of course, a man and a woman.
Morris began her career as James Morris, a discharged soldier and a foreign correspondent for the Times and the Guardian (and, needless to say, a man). He scored some stunning scoops, from the first report on Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reaching the summit of Mount Everest to the first proof of Anglo-French-Israeli collusion during the Suez Crisis of 1956. Most importantly, though, these years as a newspaper staffer gave Morris the space and setting to hone his real talent: evoking places, especially cities.
Here he is describing 1950s Beirut:
there it stands, with a toss of curls and a flounce of skirts, a Carmen among the cities. It is the last of the Middle Eastern fleshpots, and lives its life with an intensity and a frivolity almost forgotten in our earnest generation. It is to Beirut that the divinities of this haunted seaboard, the fauns and dryads and money-gods, orgiastically descend
It feels a transitory place, like an exceedingly corrupt and sophisticated girls’ school. Such a way of life, you feel, cannot be permanent: it is too fickle, too fast, too make-believe and never-never. It is Alexandria without the philosophers, without the Pharaohs, perhaps even without Cleopatra (for age does distinctly wither the grand dames of Beirut, waddling with poodles and sunglasses from salon to couturier)…
This is not an earnest city. Proper Victorians would have hated it. Harvard economists or British civil servants, examining its improbable methods, its flibbery-gibbet charm, its blatancy and its blarney -- men of somber purpose, deposited one scented evening in Beirut, would probably pronounce it irredeemable.
But who would redeem such a place, in a world of false redemptions?
Even in an early essay like this, it is evident that Morris isn’t a “travel writer” in the ordinary travel magazine sense. Morris does give the reader a wide-awake description of the sights, sounds, and smells of Beirut -- and with much more life and verve than the common “my stay in some place” hack -- but he also goes deeper, into Beirut’s distinct character, the identity that sets it apart from all other cities, its genius loci.
The genius loci of each place is Morris’s true subject, and most of the places she visits are cities. Her method has always been simply to be a lone individual (interestingly, she likes to travel alone) in an unfamiliar city.
Morris never pretends her view is anything other than subjective and provisional. Her writing is a single sharp person’s impressions of a place; it never strives to be definitive or (that garlanded idol of American reporters) “objective.” And her impressions of a single city like New York, Sydney, Trieste, or Venice necessarily change over time.
Like the all the best travel writers (Byron, West, Bedford, Leigh Fermor, Kapuscinski, Chatwin), Morris is always happy to deploy her fictionist powers to capture certain truths about a place. As she writes in her introduction to The World (a career-spanning selection of her writing), “I was writing about the world, certainly, but it was my world - as I put it myself in another context: ‘Is that the truth? Is that how it was? It is my truth. If it is not invariably true in the fact, it is true in the imagination.’”
Surely it’s worthwhile to take a tour of some of Morris’ imaginative truths.
The uncomfortable contradictions of Weimar (the city itself, not the Republic), which hosted successive flowerings of German literature and music in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and hosted Hitler in the twentieth:
In the late eighteenth century the young Duke Carl August turned his city into a kind of aesthetocracy, an alliance between the aristocratic and the creative…
For generations Weimar was the dream of Germany. Madam de Stael reported that it was not so much a small city as one large, liberal and wonderfully enlightened palace.
To this day it is bathed in the light of those great times, when artists and monarchs were equals. Carl August lies in his mausoleum flanked not by his generals, but by his two great poets, Goethe and Schiller…
However:
In the market square stands the Elephant Hotel, and all the waters of the Ilm canot wash the taint from this unfortunate hostelry. It is a handsome thirties building, but unfortunately redecorated inside in a glittery, chromy style that suggests the imminent arrival of swaggering Gauleiters with blonde floozies out of big black Mercedes. This impression is all too true. Hitler and his crew were particularly fond of the hotel, and more than once the Führer spoke form its balcony to enthusiastic crowds in the square outside.
The torpor and melancholy of Trieste after World War II:
Its talented young people are leaving, its old liberal tradition is neglected, its brave commercial instincts are blunted and frustrated. Depressed and half-hearted, it meanders on in disillusionment: not drunk, indeed, or crippled by war, or oppressed, even destitute: just bored, that’s all, just bored.
The peculiar mix of Hapsburg ceremoniousness and Magyar hedonism in Budapest:
The joy of Hungary is its heroic convention, the combination of formality and high jinks. Budapest always suggests to me a Vienna with fizz, its heritage of Hapsburg hierarchy spiked with sudden flashes of wit or defiance, touches of exaggeration, suggestions of excess.
Hungarians themselves, of course, like to say that this is the Magyar element -- the wild originality the first Kings of Hungary brought galloping out of the Great Plains -- and I am myself a sucker for the epic explanation. In the Heroes’ Square in Budapest… there is a group of equestrian statuary that represents the arrival of King Arpad, the first of all the kings, in the year 896. Arpad himself rides in front, his head high, his eyes firmly fixed down Andrassy Avenue towards the city centre. Around him his bodyguard of chieftains, mounted on splendidly caparisoned horses, look this way and that beneath their feathered helmets with expressions marvelously haughty and sneering -- terrifically alarming men, predatory as all hell, the sort you would very much rather have on your side than on the other.
She “never enjoyed a city more” than Budapest. Switzerland is an unfairly maligned land of “master craftsmen” and sensible politics (not to mention lakes, mountains, and engineering marvels). Chicago is the “perfect” American city; New York is no longer the dynamo of the world but has learned the secret of subtle charm. The brash Bauhaus of Tel Aviv is creating an entirely new culture, “unmistakably Israeli” but strangely un-Jewish. Sydney is a vision of real civilization, Asiatic and British at once but also something utterly unique, a city whose macho swagger conceals a certain lightness and grace and devotion to the good life.
Her journeys are not just geographic but historical as well. Her Pax Brittanica trilogy -- a history of the British Empire -- is a masterpiece of historical writing, a work to sit alongside Gibbon, Macaulay, Burckhardt, Prescott, and Trevelyan. She writes about the grand themes of imperialism and colonialism, retreat and independence, but the focus of the trilogy is on the eccentric men and women who built the Empire: soldiers, merchants, explorers, buccaneers, and sometimes simply bored young people who wanted to see the world. To Welsh republican Morris, the Empire was an epic attempt by the island-dwelling British to engage with the outside world. It was often violent, sometimes tragic, and full of bizarre and comical details, but to her it was a historical phenomenon of endless curiosity that left behind benefits and honorable legacies as well as the crimes, blunders, and partitions whose effects still occupy most of our daily headlines.
To the ancient Greeks, history was the realm of the muse Clio, and throughout literary history most readers have thought of history as a branch of literature like the play or the poem. Morris’s histories are literature, and reading them is a startling experience in an age when “history” means either cutesy bestsellers or tedious academic cinder blocks.
A small sample of Morris’ historical writing, the setting Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee:
Victoria returned to her palace in the evening, exhausted but marvelously pleased, through the blackened buildings of her ancient capital, whose smoke swirled and hovered over the grey river, and whose gas-lamps flickered into tribute with the dusk.
Morris has written that her work is suffused with what the Welsh call hiraeth, an untranslatable word that evokes a melancholy yearning for something or someone, a wistful homesickness. Hiraeth seems like an obvious cousin to Portuguese saudade or Turkish huzun. All of these words hint at distance, homesickness, wistfulness, nostalgia, and longing, but hiraeth, saudade, and huzun are more than emotions or moods that afflict an individual at certain moments. They are different ways of naming an atmosphere in which life unfolds, sometimes even an aura that surrounds a particular place.
Hiraeth, saudade, and huzun all have their bards and chroniclers. Fernando Pessoa is the great poet of saudade, and his Lisbon is unimaginable without it. Orhan Pamuk describes Istanbul as wrapped in a collective mood of huzun, quietly longing for a shimmering, possibly imaginary, past. Jan Morris doesn’t write very often about her native Wales, but her daimon seems to have drawn her to cities afflicted with hiraeth.
The cities that most fascinate Morris, the ones that never seem to exhaust her interest, are peripheral cities, often peripheral in place and sometimes peripheral in time. The city of faded glamor, the city full of ghosts, the city that doesn’t even know what country it’s in - these are the places where Morris is at her deepest. Trieste, the fictional Hav, even Venice: the cities where the genius loci has grown old, or confused, or simply sailed away mysteriously.
Pessoa’s Lisbon and Pamuk’s post-imperial Istanbul are also peripheral cities; perhaps marginal places are particularly susceptible to longing. These cities - sad Trieste or exuberant Sydney, randy Beirut or mythic and demonic Weimar - were lucky to find as perceptive a companion as Jan Morris." - Greer Mansfield

Jan Morris web page

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