Analysis of Milorad Pavić’s Dictionary of the Khazars

Dictionary of the Khazars is the first novel and first international success of the contemporary Serbian writer Milorad Pavić (1929–2009). A resident of Belgrade, Pavic´ gained an international reputation with his highly imaginative fiction. Pavic´’s novels break from traditional notions of the novel by means of an open-ended structure that allows for an unprecedented degree of reader participation. An enthusiastic admirer of magic realism, Pavic´ renders his stories through the characteristic entwining of the mythic and the historical. Demonstrating the infinite possibilities of instantiation in the postmodern narrative, Pavic´’s novels are classifi ed as hypertexts. These works use gimmicks and generative devices to engage the reader in an interactive encounter. Heightened epistemological instability, formal innovation, and brilliant poetic language make Pavic´’s narratives a fascinating exercise in the limits of artistic representation.

Dictionary of the Khazars is a lexicon-format novel. The work’s diverse reading paths converge in a story about the Khazars, the semifictional tribe whose bare appellation is the only historical trace of its nomadic existence in central and eastern Europe from the 7th to the 10th century. Creating a story out of these scant historical data, Pavic´ imagines a warlike tribe of hunters who inhabit other people’s dreams in search of pieces of their primordial ancestry and identity. The parcels of dreams that the Khazars bring back from their oneiric voyages are molded into wholes—dictionaries. The tribe’s sudden disappearance from the historical scene is presented as the consequence of an indecipherable dream’s interpretation.

In the novel, the Great Khan of the Khazars has a dream that proves nearly impossible to interpret. To shed some light upon the vision, the khan summons representatives of the world’s three great religions—a Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim. He asks for their respective elucidations of the dream, promising the conversion of his entire tribe to the religion whose explanation is most convincing. The scholars produce three dictionaries, or versions of the story. This trilogy in effect presents the novel itself: the Red Book (Christian), the Green Book (Islamic), and the Yellow Book (Hebrew). Each “dictionary account” is seasoned by the pseudoscholarly apparatus and particularities of representation relevant to the respective culture. The three equally credible versions of the story indicate the complex and erratic nature of historical and ontological truth.

This summary barely touches on the surface plot of the Dictionary of the Khazars, for the novel always develops through a particularized path of reading, or “dream-hunting,” which distinct for each reader. Thus, the very form of this hypertext indicates the extent of the indeterminacy and subjectivity that lie at the novel’s core. The book is structured as an alphabetized series of dictionary entries about the people, events, and themes supposedly related to the Khazar polemic. The records include “subjects” as inventive as suicide by mirrors or romance between the living and the dead. The navigation through this fictionalized space may proceed along any conceivable path—cross sections, random choices of entries, from the end or the beginning of the printed text, via a certain book/dictionary (Christian, Islamic, or Jewish), and so forth. The nonlinear navigation generates the novel’s outcome, which is always personalized and subjective.

The story merges fact and fiction, fantasy and reality in a manner reminiscent of the work of the Argentine short story writer Jorge Luis Borges. To render his “fictional reality” even more convoluted, Pavic´ has constructed his novel along gender lines, publishing female and male versions. The variation between the two is slight.

Written in a uniquely seductive language, Dictionary of the Khazars is a fine example of Pavic´’s distinctive blend of prose and poetry. His style is replete with unusual metaphors, unfamiliar imagery, rhythmic patterns, and poetic devices. In addition, the novel’s language gains in its poetic power as its overall effect is subject to continuous jumping back and forth between the entries and their culturally differentiated modes of representation. The mastery of language combined with the unpredictability of sequence makes Dictionary of the Khazars an engaging text that not only invites but necessitates multiple readings.

The novel’s elaborate structure hosts a myriad of myths, folklore and pseudo-folklore legends, incantations, and metaphysical meditations, all rendered in a subtly comic tone. The whole is a repository of quasifacts and dreams.

The dictionary is an attempt to reconstruct a certain post-Khazar “dictionary of all Khazar’s dictionaries” that appeared long after the tribe had vanished. The Khazar polemic was revitalized in the 17th century, Pavic´ explains in his fictionalized preface, and a special effort is made in the story to collect all dictionary entries in one book.

The text is based on a superimposition of historical gaps, with the narrative essentially disengaged from any historical, epistemological, or ontological reality or core. The sole anchorage of the novel is the reader’s play of reading and cowriting. This ludic quality makes Dictionary of the Khazars an ebullient text, drawing readers into a world portrayed at the same time as joyous, mesmerizing, and uncanny.

Though written in 1984, Pavic´’s Dictionary of the Khazars has been praised as the first novel of the 21st century and the most powerful contemporary reconstruction of the novel’s form. The success of Pavic´ ’s refiguration of the genre of the novel is substantiated by the writer’s increasing popularity with readers, scholars, and critics.

Coover, Robert. “He Thinks the Way We Dream” New York Times Book Review (20 November 1988).
Hayles, N. Katherine. “Corporeal Anxiety in Dictionary of the Khazars: What Books Talk About in the Late Age of Print When They Talk About Losing Their Bodies.” Modern Fiction Studies 43, no. 3 (1997).
Milojkovic-Djuric, Jelena. “The Poetics of Epiphany: The Literary Oeuvre of Milorad Pavic´.” Serbian Studies 9, nos. 1–2 (1995).
Pavic´, Milord. The Inner Side of the Wind, or The Novel of Hero and Leander. Translated by Christina Pribichevich- Zoric. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
———. Landscape Painted with Tea. Translated by Christina Pribichevich-Zoric. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.
———. Last Love in Constantinople: A Tarot Novel for Divination. Translated by Christina Pribichevich-Zoric. Chester Springs, Pa.: Dufour Editions, 1998.

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