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Thursday, January 6, 2011

A Critique of Milorad Pavic

I am surprised at how many well-informed people remain unfamiliar with Milorad Pavic's brilliant 1984 novel Dictionary of the Khazars, English translation 1988 by Christina Pribcevic-Zoric. The book is about determining the Khazar Polemic, or which of the Abrahamic religions the lost people known as the Khazars ultimately converted to. This provides the platform for Pavic's wildly imaginitivate leaping across centuries, across fact and fantasy, from reality to myth. Charles Fenyvesi actually said that Pavic "writes with such imaginative cultural extension as to make Garcia Marquez seem like James Mitchener."

The book is a cross-referenced dictionary of events and people divided into three parts: Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. Readers are literally encouraged to read the book in any order they prefer. Pavic wants his novels to be "reversible art," meaning that it does not have a beginning or ending. It is like sculpture or painting: it can be seen from different angles, and the viewer moves about it freely.

What's more, the book comes in two versions, the male and the female. One crucial paragraph is different in the two. Thereby, Pavic forces the book to remain open, to always invite another reversible reading.

A very interesting, although very unconvincing, critique of Pavic is developed by Andrew Wachtel in his article "Postmodernism as Nightmare: Milorad Pavic's Literary Demolition of Yugoslavia" in a 1997 issue of The Slavic and East European Journal. Now I am not interested in writing a boring entry that critiques an obscure academic article. Rather, I find myself challenged by the ideas Wachtel brings forth. He should be heard.

This is his argument in skeletal form:
--He takes his definition of postmodernism from Lyotard, profound skepticism about metanarratives.
--He says that postmodernism developed in stable states in Western Europe and North America where such skepticism would not bring down "the whole house of cards." In Yugoslavia during the 80's it did a lot of harm by being one factor in causing the metanarrative that made Yugoslavia possible become questioned. The result was civil war.
--The Enlightenment inspired meta-narrative proved a necessity for Yugoslavia; it was a luxury for what Wachtel implies are Ivory Tower intellectuals of the West.
--Postmodernism appeared in Yugoslavia just as the country started to disintegrate.
--In Yugoslavia, imaginitave literature was a high-status activity that provided the country with its narratives. In such a cultural milieu, it's not an exaggeration to say that a work of fiction played a role in causing a country to fail.
--Early in Yugoslavia's history, emphasis was placed on the unity of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, not their differences. Intellectuals at the time saw the importance of cultural figures in forming the notion of a Yugoslav and a Yugoslavian state. Conversely, Postmodernism lauds difference over unity.
--By the 60's, ethnic difference was being emphasized more. What kept the country together was supra-national Communism, i.e. ideology, and cultural concerns were secondary.
--A number of novelists began to question and unravel the metanarrative of nationalist unity. This article will look at Pavic's novel.
--The purported structural complexity of Pavic's novel is actually a gimmick. It actually has a conventional plot centering around two questions: What religion did the Khazars convert to in the 9th century and why do representatives of the various religions come together to try to solve the problem?
--When investigating in later centuries, each religion is convinced that their religion was chosen by the Khazars.
--This is Wachtel's crucial point: this is a radically relavitizing vision of history that leaves us with only language games and not unifying narratives.
--Wachtel prefers the novelist Ivo Andric's novel The Bridge over the Drina to Pavic's because it acknowledges the various views of history held by the Muslims, Christians and other groups in Yugoslavia, but then it worked to find, and did find, the truth.
--Pavic's novel was hugely popular and influential in Serbia. It helped to deligitimize any claim for truth, leading to disunity and, Wachtel implies, ultimately a might is right situation.

What I find most intriguing about this argument is that Wachtel is arguing that various cultures can withstand postmodernist critique better than others. I also really appreciate that he takes literature so seriously.

I don't know that Pavic would call himself a Postmodernist. Based on an interview in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, he would seem to be a theist! In addition, by placing the truth, ie what the Khazars converted to, in an impenetrable, agrarian past of myth-like and folkloric stories, his book is a lot more like Genesis than it is like Federman's Double or Nothing.

What makes the novel seem so innovative is its structure. It is innovative, but not as much as it might seem. Essentially, it is an episodic novel put together so that readers can encounter the sections in the order they choose. It's Cervante's gone choose your own adventure.

However, the real reason to read Pavic isn't his structural innovation. It's the magically fertile nature of his mind, that leads to some of the most surprising sentences and passages imaginable. See my March 24 post to see examples of these sentences.

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