Book Review: “Dictionary of the Khazars” by Milorad Pavić

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Detail from William Holman Hunt’s “The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple” (1860).

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The Khazars, also known as “the thirteenth tribe,” were a semi-nomadic Turkic people who settled in the Caucasus in the sixth century. In the eighth century, they were caught between the Orthodox Byzantines and the Muslim world and in order to deflect these competing pressures, the Khazar royalty and nobility decided to convert to Judaism. This event is surrounded by mystery and there are many different theories on exactly what happened. Not a single line of the Khazar language has survived, nor is there any archaeological evidence to be found. One story is that the leader of the Khazars invited three religious scholars (one Jewish, one Christian, and one Muslim) to interpret a dream he had, and told them that he would convert to the faith of the most successful interpreter.

In Dictionary of the Khazars, Milorad Pavić takes this historical enigma and creates his own fictional account of the nation’s conversion – except that in his book, it is unknown which religion was victorious. The novel is presented as an actual dictionary (well, more like an encyclopedia), divided into three parts: the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish sources – all of them claiming that the Khazars converted to their faith. The sources contradict and complement each other, creating a puzzle for the reader to put together.

Because of its form (the dictionary), the narrative of the Khazars is fragmentary, divided into Arabian Nights-like short stories and a number of paratexts. The reader needs to go through the preserved fragments of a destroyed edition, a lost urtext, appendices, and closing notes to get the complete picture. The entries can be read front to back, but really, the reader is free to explore the work in whatever way they see fit. In the introduction, Pavić writes:

[The reader] can, with a clear conscience, [...] read the way he eats: he can use his right eye as a fork, his left as a knife, and toss the bones over his shoulder. That will do. [...] No chronology will be observed here, nor is one necessary. Hence each reader will put together the book for himself, as in a game of dominoes or cards, and, as with a mirror, he will get out of this dictionary as much as he puts into it [...].

In his works, Pavić tries to invent a new way of reading instead of a new way of writing; he puts us, the readers, at the centre and challenges us to be creative and forge our own paths. Because we all tackle this book in different ways, no Dictionary of the Khazars reading experience is the same. Incidentally, Pavić has also written a novel that can be read both horizontally and vertically, like a crossword puzzle, and a book in the form of a pack of tarot cards. Because of course he did.

As if that wasn’t enough, there are also two different editions of the book: a female and a male edition. The difference between the two are fifteen lines, which Pavić claims are essential to fully grasping the story (they’re not, really – but it is more than just a publishing gimmick). In the closing notes, he dreams up an imaginary woman, a reader, and how she will run into a young man who, like her, has been reading Dictionary of the Khazars. They will compare their editions over coffee and once they have come together, they will leave their books behind and walk off into the sunset together, “for what comes next is their affair alone, and it is worth more than any reading.” Aahww. Pavić just wants us to be happy, you guys.

There are three main storylines taking place in different centuries: the Khazar polemic, the publication of the book, and an academic conference. Characters reincarnate, events from the twentieth century affect the past, and if you are not paying close attention, you will miss out on vital clues as to how it all fits together. This is where I made a horrible mistake. It was deadline season at my university and I squeezed in Dictionary of the Khazars in the precious spare moments I could find, waiting for the bus, right before going to bed… Not the best way to go about tackling a book that requires your full attention. The introduction, it seems, knew this would happen:

The author advises the reader not to tackle this book unless he absolutely has to. And if he does not touch it, let it be on days when he feels that his mind and sense of caution probe deeper than usual, and let him read it the way he catches ‘leap-fever’, an illness that skips over every other day and strikes only on feminine days of the week.

I’m so sorry, Pavić. You tried to warn me and I completely ignored you. I still have no clue what actually happened in this book and I have no one but myself to blame.

So what about the actual story? Does the writing match the ambition of the form? Well, yes and no. On the one hand, Pavić is wonderfully creative; Dictionary of the Khazars is full of books written in poisoned ink, death by mirrors made of salt, eggs filled with time, dream hunters, people carrying birds inside their shirts to keep warm in winter… As Robert Coover put it in his review, “he thinks the way we dream.” The imagery Pavić uses is incredibly vivid and he has a way with metaphors unlike anything I have ever seen before. He describes a pair of eyes as “two shallow dishes of onion soup,” something as being “the colour of damp sand,” or a man as looking like “he wore his skin over his clothes.” As a writing style, it’s not for everyone, but it is certainly unique.

However, for all his creativity in terms of structure and imagery, Dictionary of the Khazars misses one golden opportunity; even even though the book consists of several parts penned by different writers at different times, many of them sound like they were written by the same author. I’d expected some changes in style, but the only entries that do switch it up are the closing notes and most of the twentieth-century plotline. This variety was a welcome change to me, as I’d gotten slightly bored at this stage (this is why Borges wrote short stories!). With the shift in voice, I suddenly became interested and attentive again – but by then the book was almost over.

In the end, I wanted to like Dictionary of the Khazars a lot more than I actually did. Some of this is my own fault for not giving it the time and attention it deserved, but I also feel that Pavić could have done more to make this book truly magnificent. On the surface, it caters to my personal interests to an almost eerie degree (unconventional narrative forms, mythology, cultural memory, cracks in time, hell yes), but as I made my way through the entries, it failed to hold my attention. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating entry in the postmodern movement and definitely worth a read if you’re a fan of Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges (specifically “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”), and/or Umberto Eco.

…Seriously though, what does the colour of damp sand look like?


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One thought on “Book Review: “Dictionary of the Khazars” by Milorad Pavić

  • May 14, 2017 at 7:28 pm
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    Oh please – read it more, from time to time – to get it deeper. Its not much common between Pavic and all that folks – Italo Calvino, Borges, Eco & Cortázar – that’s another view. “Lexicon cosri” its a book of the books, the only one I can read for lifetime, add and re-read!

    Reply

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