Here be Myrmidons

On twitter earlier today I worried that my columns for the National Geographic Traveller seemed more likely to dissuade people from travel than otherwise – in the October issue (out now!) I discuss the usefulness of cruise ships to potential murderers, and November and December’s projected pieces aren’t particularly cheerful either. In last month’s column, of which a longer version is reproduced below, I go a step further and suggest that travel writing and travel writers themselves are inherently suspicious. I’m fortunate to have a tolerant editor.

The Hav books and The Islanders are glorious, complex things, and I’d love to write more about them free of time and wordcount constraints.  An earlier version of this piece contained a section on Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities; in retrospect it’s probably a good thing that I left it out.

 

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The publication of Jan Morris’ Last Letters from Hav caused some confusion among readers. Written in 1985, this travel narrative took the form of a series of dispatches from a historical city; twenty years later Morris would revisit the city with the publication of Hav of the Myrmidons. Ursula K. Le Guin explains in her introduction to my edition of Morris’ two Hav books that aspiring travellers were surprised by the difficulty of getting to Hav. Why anyone should have wanted to visit a place that was, according to Morris, in the throes of a violent revolution remains a mystery, but the real problem was that Hav had never existed.

To set a book in a fictional place is nothing new. Fantasy writers have been doing it for years, providing elaborate maps, family trees and histories for worlds that never existed. Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, know that The Lord of the Rings was only a miniscule part of his universe. Tolkien’s Middle Earth has its own creation myth as well as multiple entire languages created by the author.

All this takes dedication (and a certain level of obsession). But to create a new city in our own world is something else entirely. For Hav to be plausible, Morris has to rewrite all of human history. She inserts the city into the Iliad and the Bible; she makes it an important point on the Silk Route, and the site of an historic meeting between the Attaturk and Lawrence of Arabia. Ibn Battuta writes of the city, as does Marco Polo.

Marco Polo is a useful clue here to the nature of Hav. Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities has the Italian explorer describing to Kublai Khan a host of fictional cities, each a meditation on the words and signs we use to experience, think of and talk about other places.

The invocation of Marco Polo is not the only way in which Hav flaunts its fictionality. Morris rather cheekily has a character express indignation at the marginalisation of the city in the histories of the writer Braudel, and later has her narrator describe it as looking “like a city of pure fiction”.

It’s tempting to see the Hav books as straightforward imitations of travel writing, but of a place that doesn’t exist. But the “Jan Morris” who is the narrator of a travelogue is not the same as the Jan Morris who is the author of two works of fiction. Sometimes it seems clear that “Jan” is a creation of parody. Both books are full of genre-specific cliché – native bazaars, inefficient foreign bureaucracies, lost glories of the past, the inscrutability of Chinese immigrants. “Jan” is constantly attempting to write herself into this history; she strives to find historical affinities between her own  (Welsh) background and Hav’s early Kretev settlers, insists that she has inside knowledge that is unavailable to others, and shows contempt of other tourists whose experience of the city is less ‘authentic’ than her own. We know this character; we see her in travel literature all the time.

No reader, even one confused by Last Letters from Hav, would mistake Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago for a place on earth. The Dream Archipelago is the setting for many of Priest’s works, including 2011’s The Islanders, which presents itself as a kind of gazette. The introduction explains the geography of the planet, with large landmasses in the north and south and a belt of islands scattered across the tropical and temperate zones of its single ocean. This is followed by a series of short chapters, each about one of the islands. They are arranged in alphabetical order; each contains essential details about the island’s geographical peculiarities, its currency and its history. This seems comfortably factual, but we know from the beginning that things won’t be that easy. Chaster Kammeston, the supposed writer of this introduction, points out that the book simply cannot contain every island in the archipelago when experts cannot even be sure how many there are. There are also problems of islands with similar names and co-ordinates, of different forms of island patois that give the same name to different things (or different names to the same thing), so that it’s hard to be sure if one island is distinct from another.

Then too there are cartographical fictions that are made on purpose. We learn that the island of Tremm, off the south coast of Mequa, does not appear on any map. This island is a secret military base, and there’s no official record of its existence. Later we learn of the visual distortions caused by the planet’s winds, so that the aerial view of some places changes according to circumstances – an effect that calls every map into question. These details that undermine everything we can know about the islands are scattered across the book.

Most disconcerting of all are the hints that the book itself is not all it claims to be (and what sort of name for a gazette is The Islanders, anyway?). Kammeston, in the introduction, says that the book is well-meaning and “will do no harm”. Yet his introduction seems less and less likely as we read through the book and find that it implicates Kammeston himself in a murder, and later contains news of his death.

Though they both write travelogues of fictional places, Morris and Priest use very different strategies. Morris immerses us in the certainty of really knowing a place, then hits us with the revelation that our knowledge isn’t real. Priest adopts the most fact-centred of formats but undermines it constantly. Places cannot be known, both books suggest. All travel writing is a lie.

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