Dictionary of the Khazars: Milorad Pavic’’s Brilliant Balkan Babbling

Dictionary of the Khazars:  Milorad Pavic’’s Brilliant Balkan Babbling

(Due to formatting issues, the accent on the c does not appear properly)

As a reader of novels by world authors as well as a writer, I appreciate books that offer a different sensibility than our very pragmatic, often spare American one.  I also have an interest in metafiction—-Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings” is one of the most brilliant little stories I have read, not to mention one of the funniest ones.  A vivid imagination is also something that is a joy to read, given the very often-pragmatic nature of American short stories and novels that deal with family dynamics, relationship woes, etc.  Garcia Marquez, Calvino, Rushdie, and others create worlds full of fantasy that intersect with our own, leaving us to wonder what is real and what is not.  I have also complained in earlier posts about the need for writers who understand their own cultures, politics, and histories, especially here in the United States.  It is from this point of view that I have read Milorad Pavic’’s Dictionary of the Khazars, his acclaimed work from the late 1980s, translated by Christina Pribic’evic’-Zoric’.  Sadly, I have found this book to be a disappointment and quite a trial to read.

The difficulty comes from this:  Pavic’ attempts to do too much and tries to be too clever, making it an inaccessible book, a book that asks too much of the reader.  Metafiction itself is not always an easy genre; by dismissing conventional form, it requires the reader to be attentive, to be aware that the form is self-consciously playing with you.  You are not going to get a conventional linear narrative.  The author has made this choice, and therefore the story has to fit into this particular container, so to speak.  So does the subject matter.

And therein lies the second problem.  The subject matter is, for lack of a better description, a sort of historical fiction that meets theology, for the purpose of the book is to understand the theological reasons for the Khazars’ conversion to one of the three religions of the book.  This in itself is an extremely complex issue, for understanding religions in the Balkans and the Middle East/West Asia involves a deep understanding of culture, politics, history, language, etcetera.  It is impossible to separate out these strands, to separate the strands of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in Balkan history.  Dictionary of the Khazars addresses the conversion question via each of these religions, each of which gets its own book (red for Christianity, green for Islam, and yellow for Judaism).

Finally, the fact that Dictionary of the Khazars is a dictionary (or more accurately, an encyclopedia, as the entries are more detailed and complex) allows the author to have some leeway in describing the entries.  That is, Pavic’ can in theory vary the narrative tone in order to convey a story (which often have a dreamlike or Arabian-nights quality to them, spinning out into unusual tangents), a description of a person, a text, a letter, or even an object (such as the fruit called ku.)  However, this becomes too distracting to the reader, for each type of entry has a completely different writing style, ranging from simple to florid.  Some of the entries run extremely long.  Some of the entries are found in all 3 of the books that comprise the dictionary.  Characters from one book resurface in entries in another, but it is not always easy to remember who is who, as the various strands do not tie in well together.  Granted, a suggested way of reading this book is not in a linear fashion, but to follow the references, or to read each entry in each of the books so as to understand each strand better.  This is metafiction, after all, and the reader’s relationship with the text is not supposed to be conventional.  But isn’t this too much to ask of the reader, given the typical, even well-read, American’s minimal knowledge of the Balkans?  And this is exceptionally difficult when the prose itself is disjointed, ideas and themes suddenly shift mid-paragraph, and not just when talking about dreams (in which case it would be justifiable).

Needless to say, Pavic’ is a brilliant mind, a scholar who knows much about the various nuances and details of complex histories and religions.  At times, Pavic’’s talents as a poet shine through, for there is much beautiful language and sensual imagery, not to mention humor.  To even attempt such a novel is a feat of bravery.  Numerous writers struggle with even simple linear plot lines and in bringing historical events to life through fictitious characters or situations. However, the execution is not successful in Dictionary of the Khazars.  Perhaps this can be a lesson to authors in the future who wish to tackle historical metafiction.

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