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Hav of the Myrmidons

February 9th, 2015

I did what Tolstoy did, and jumped out of the train when it stopped in the evening at the old frontier.

When I first read Last Letters from Hav ten years ago, its sequel, Hav of the Myrmidons, had already come out, but I had no idea because I was reading the original edition with the badass expressionist cover from 1985.

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I loved it for the setting, for the incredibly complex worldbuilding, for the conceit of a fantastic city disguised as a real one. Hav itself was the product of thousands of years of real history; Last Letters from Hav was the product of decades Morris spent traveling and writing about real places, real people. And my god, the prose.

At the time I was desperate to find examples of a literary tradition that didn’t conform to “the rules”; I knew that was the kind of fiction I wanted to write, but hadn’t a clue yet what I’d gotten myself into. Last Letters from Hav was everything I’d been looking for: a novel drenched in character and setting, profound in a way I could appreciate but failed to fully grasp, all hanging on the barest implication of plot, an unspoken question to which the text forms only a part of an answer, the balance of which the reader only slowly becomes able to discern by the shape of the holes.

In the intervening years, I would discover Borges, Bulgakov, Calvino, Kelly Link, Angélica Gorodischer, Miguel Ángel Asturias and countless others unto reading bliss. Hav was a stepping stone on my way to all that. But because it was among the first stones, on first read, there were entire populations of subtexts that went right over my head. For example, it was only on second read–blasphemy of blasphemies–that I realized Last Letters from Hav may well be the purest exemplar of that chimera I raved about to such excess back around 2009, the Borgesian novel. Hav is a city built atop a labyrinth; Last Letters from Hav is the labyrinth the traversal of which provides our only means of comprehending that city. The only means, that is, until we find Hav of the Myrmidons.

Ten years later, I finally went out and got the omnibus edition titled Hav, the one with the cover featuring the almost photographic image of the burning House of the Chinese Master. I’d waited this long, and approached it now only with trepidation, because of the dread which accompanies my approach to all sequels: will it stand up to the original, or will its lesser joys only tarnish the memory of its predecessor? Was it written because the author really had something further to say, or because she’d caved under market pressures? I think of Harper Lee.

But even if the sequel’s terrible, I rationalized, it’ll give me an excuse to reread the original, and to give away my old copy and start someone else on this journey.

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The sequel is by no means terrible. It is, heartbreakingly, a different book entirely, which of course is what all sequels must be. And yet, as it cruelly crosses out question after exquisite question left me by Last Letters, as it perfunctorily, exhaustively, mercilessly answers, and in answering destroys, each beautiful, hitherto unfathomable mystery of the old Hav, raising sterilized, Disnified corporate monuments from their ruins, it also raises new questions–darker questions, not so beautiful maybe but just as complex, more honest, more true to the world of which both the old Hav and its distorted modern reflection are themselves reflections, and therefore all the more pressing.

In fact, as I write this I’m realizing that Hav of the Myrmidons is an incredibly apt metaphor for that very process of engaging with sequels I described above, as it is for the process of aging, of losing the idealism of youth, gaining new perspective, nostalgia for that youth but also the recognition that it served its purpose and is irretrievably gone. Hav of the Myrmidons depicts a more cynical, more coldly practical, more efficient city, and the labyrinth that city describes leads to questions we would be irresponsible not to face.

If you’re like me, if you loved Last Letters from Hav and have hesitated, for fear of shattering the mirage it created, to seek out its sequel, let me encourage you to do so. It’s worth reading. In fact, I might even call it essential.

Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.

–Novalis

   Monumental Metaphor, Reading, Travel | No Comments »

A Penance in Verapaz

January 30th, 2014

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Volcán Agua from the Hill of the Cross overlooking Antigua, Guatemala

Verapaz means “true peace”. The neighboring Guatemalan departments of Alta and Baja Verapaz are so named because of the warlike Achí Maya, who like the Apache in the US stubbornly refused to be conquered until long after the rest of the country. When they finally did submit, it was because of the spread of religion, not the sword.

This is a story of breakdown and redemption, in which I strive again and again to interrogate and dismantle my assumptions only to find more awaiting beneath, until finally, mental and physical resources spent, I give up hope, only to be lifted up and saved by human kindness.

Before the dawn of January 25th in the mountainous jungle town of Lanquín, Alta Verapaz, I cursed out a small crowd of self-important American adventure tourists packed into a rickety minibus bound for Antigua. That evening, I danced goofily (the only way I know how) with a small crowd of teenage Achí Mayan girls to a marimba band at a saint’s day fair in the desert valley town of Rabinal, Baja Verapaz, then fell asleep on a cardboard pallet on their kitchen floor long past midnight on the 26th. These were serious breaches of character for me. I get angry, but I never vent it at other people no matter what kind of assholes they are; I bottle it up, then expel it into exertion or prose. I dance in public only under duress or the influence of strong drink, and I open up to people under more or less the same circumstances.

Understanding the cause of these transgressions perhaps requires a little backstory.

I’ve read much on the subject of Guatemala; I’ve written stories, blog posts; I’m working on a novel. I don’t consider myself any kind of authority. I’m a hobbyist, a tourist. But I try. I love Guatemala, and I want to do it justice, to treat its people and culture with empathy and respect. This is where the assumptions come in: privilege, whiteness, entitlement. I’m trying to see through these things to the truth, trying to understand what it is to be born to the opposite of those things in a place I love because of them.

At the end of this, my fourth and latest visit, I’d planned three days to myself. This concept was anathema to the white kids on the minibus, who with shrill laughter equated the notion of an afternoon alone even in Antigua, a city full of English-speakers, to waking nightmare. For me, though, those three days alone were a promise of release, a getting back to myself. Disinclined though I’d normally be to resort to Christian metaphor—particularly since the motivations in question include no small pagan influence—I thought of it as a penance. Penance for the cushy, full-bellied vacationing I’d done with my family up to this point; penance for the cushy, full-bellied living I’d been doing at home.

What I sap I am, I know. And this is long. So I’ll forgive you for not clicking….

Read the rest of this entry »

   Angry, Guatemala, Monumental Metaphor, Religion, Travel | 2 Comments »

Tree Meditations

January 28th, 2013

How is a tree like a Mayan temple?

Layers. Every 52-year cycle of the Calendar Round (every time the synodic period of Venus made it halfway back around to resynchronization with both the orbital period of Earth and their own 260-day sacred calendar), the ancient Mayans built a new layer of temple atop what was already there. Trees build fifty-two new layers in the same period. Both are meditations upon time.

Some of the most beautiful trees I’ve ever seen have been at Mayan sacred sites (like the ceiba at the gate to Tikal). Coincidence?

Kaminaljuyú is the ancient Maya city on top of which the modern-day Guatemalan capitol is built. It’s huge–widely cited as the greatest archaeological site in the Americas–but most of it is buried now under highways and high-rises. The archaeological park preserves only a tiny fraction behind a 12 foot high barb-wire fence in what is perhaps not the nicest neighborhood. Not a lot of nice neighborhoods in Guate. Like at Takalik Abaj, centuries’ accumulation of earth has turned the temples into green hills covered in jacarandas and moss-bearded cypresses (this is where I saw the foxes). At the foot of this particular tree, two Maya priests were celebrating, still at it two days after the solstice, the tourists long gone. They asked me not to take pictures of the sacred fire atop their little brickwork altar or the offerings of tamales and aguardiente.

The tree was just as awe-inspring.

Same tree from the squirrel’s POV. Also my desktop background.

This enormous, amazing tree has been growing in the central plaza in Tecpán outside the church I daresay since before the church was built. Pedro de Alvarado’s troops built their first permanent military base here in 1524 just after they razed the nearby Cakchiquel capitol of Iximché, at the ruins of which I spent the night of Ojlajuj Baktun. I have never seen a tree like this–it’s clearly some kind of conifer, but the foliage is fernlike, soft to the touch, though much thicker than a fern’s. I’ve researched to the end of my ability and I can’t figure out what it is. The twitter of a thousand birds in its canopy competed with the ranchero band ringing in the new era at the other end of the plaza. I sat on that wall with my back to its trunk and ate a chocolate-covered frozen pineapple.

Laguna de Chicabal is a tiny volcanic crater lake in Quetzaltenango department that spends about half its time inside a cloud. On the trail descending to it from the mountain, a hand-cut wooden sign asks visitors to stop and ask permission of the Mam ancestors before going on. On the path around the shore are twenty altars piled with calla lilies and carnations, each corresponding to one of the twenty days of the month in the Mayan ritual calendar. I paced it out labryinth-style, thinking of nothing, while the cloud condensed in gray jewels on my eyebrows. This tree corresponds to the altar of Noj, day of self-reflection and creative thought.

Next, maybe some temple meditations.

   Guatemala, Monumental Metaphor, Religion, Travel, Trees | No Comments »

On the Influence of Place on Place

July 30th, 2012

I took a coach bus from Boston to Manchester, New Hampshire. I don’t normally take buses in this country—either I have a car or I ride the train. New England was once my home but is no longer; after only a year, I recognize its beauty as transient; I perceive it as a place existing in contrast to other places: hilly, richly wooded, old. These strangenesses, combined with the impact of ugly fluorescent-on-blue patterned fabric on seats and ceiling, too-cold air conditioning and an uncomfortable narrowness of seats palpably not on an airplane, rendered in me a displacement.

When I glanced up thus detachedly from drowsy study of my lap as the bus wheeled sharply out of a park-and-ride lot in Londonderry, NH, and a low hillside knotted with bleached shrubs spun into view, I found myself for an instant transported to roughly equivalent conveyance pulling out of a dusty motel parking lot on the outskirts of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. In a moment that low stucco wall would appear: the one with the graffiti mural of the feathered serpent. The pickup truck in the next lane would pull away and be replaced with another 30 years older, half its size. The blood in my head would begin to expand from the altitude. And the unconscious potbellied man encroaching on my elbow room in the seat beside me would become, though dressed wildly differently and dreaming in a different tongue, perhaps no less inscrutable.

Manchester is a run-down city, an old mill town. I had considered it an ugly city. Between brown concrete high-rises, gradually, imperceptibly, the empty brickworks refill with boutique manufacturers. Absent windowpanes are replaced with new glass. Massive raised highways, long since displacing streetcars, divide and circumvent.

I disembarked and walked for miles to destinations I’ve visited many times, always by car. Again, the exhaustion, the pack sweaty on my back, enforced a mindset I have previously reserved for foreign lands. Permitted the abundance of time and necessity to traverse the city on foot and at length, I discovered neglected Victorian graveyards, ponds, hillside neighborhoods in need of paint, an overgrown railroad track, bridge abutments enriched with graffiti. Between the Piscataquog and Merrimack rivers I found the city’s old French-Canadian quarter, untouched by urban renewal, the main street lined with pawn shops, barber poles, diners. I visited the library. I sat in empty parks on rusted benches, reading.

The impatience and familiarity of home would have prevented me doing any of this.

All of which is just to say again, I guess, that in order to come home, you have to go away.

   HM, Travel, Writings | No Comments »