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Friday, March 19, 2010

Pavic's "Dictionary of the Khazars"

The Serbo-Croation novel Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic, stands out, for me, as the single most memorable novel of the last quarter century. It is a book about reading, about linearity and non-linearity, the nether world of dreams, poetry, and art.

After a short introduction, it takes the form of three "books" — Christian, Islam, and Jewish. Each loosely pertains to a time when the Khazars worshiped that particular Abrahamic faith. Pavic informs us that there is no need to read the books in order. You could start with the Jewish and end with the Christian, or even jump around a lot more than that. In addition, Pavic has provided an index so that readers can trace characters and events as they appear in the various books.

The Khazars existed as a nomadic tribe of the southern Caucasus who came to their greatest power in the 6th and 7 centuries CE. However, the novel focuses on the scholarship on the Khazars that was written in the 17th century. It was at that time that the original dictionary was written. However, through various happenstance — from one copy being poisoned to another that was used for fire, the dictionary only survived in scraps. That's what we have today: scraps written in the 17th century in various languages about a people who lived a thousand years before.

Obviously, Pavic is asking us to move into the realm of representation. He is eliminating the origin, the historical Khazar people, and even much of the representation of them, the dictionary. What's left are signs, many decontextualized. This does sound like standard post-modernism.

But it doesn't stop there. For me Pavic is more than the play of signs and representations. After all, there is a dark side to the stories here. And a randomness. In one, for instance, "dream hunters" pursue a certain precursor. "If we follow our angel precursor when he is ascending the heavenly ladder, we approach God Himself, and if we have the misfortune to follow him when he falls, we move away from God, but we can know neither one nor the other." Then, in the next paragraph, he says that it "is a matter of technique."

Pavic has moved us into a field where he takes back what he gives, refuses to assert how much of our most important efforts can be attributed to luck or technique, and goes on his merry way. This is a book of magic. But underneath the surface, always, it is a horror novel. Is it stretching it to say that Pavic wrote this book as Yugoslavia was disintegrating, and the political events had an impact? I don't know. Writers living in political upheaval are as likely to use writing to escape from such horrors as to explore them, however obliquely.

What is certain is that we can just imagine Milorad Pavic's twinkling, mischievous eyes throughout our reading of this book. But I also imagine them to be rimmed with a red sadness.

We already are and never will become fully what we are.

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