At times, the progressive spirits of 20th century fiction seemed
determined to turn the novel into something other than fiction.  In
their opinion, the novel might resemble an
annotated poem, a guide
to writing styles, a journalistic account of a crime in Kansas, or
ruminations on the bombing of Dresden.  It might take the form
a quest to find another novel, or look like a vengeful typographer
had unleashed his frustrations on the printed page. But Serbian
writer Milorad Pavić may have taken the most extreme step of all
in his attempt to turn the novel into a dictionary.

Or, rather, three dictionaries.  His 1984 work
Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel
takes the guise of three conflicting reference
works devoted to a historical event from the
late 8th century.   At that time, the Khazars, a
Turkic people at the crossroads of Europe
and Asia, decided to give up their traditional
religion and embrace a new faith.  The specifics
of their conversion are clouded in the mists of
time, and the Khazars themselves didn't stay
around to tell their own version of the story.  
They were eventually conquered by Sviatoslav I
of Kiev, and disappeared from the annals of
history-although some (notably Arthur Koestler,
who developed this thesis in his 1976 book
The Thirteenth Tribe)
believe that the Ashkenazi Jews are their modern-day descendants.

Pavić takes the historical moment of the Khazars's conversion as
the focal point of his book.  He relates that the Khazar ruler first
made the decision to convert before he had decided which new
religion to embrace.  To settle matters, he invited representatives
of Islam, Christianity and Judaism to come to his court, where each
would be given the opportunity to present the reasons why he and
his nation should accept their creed. Pavić  tells us that later
scholars attempted to reconstruct the resulting debate between
the three religions leaders, known as the "Khazar polemic," and
their findings were compiled in a now lost 1691 book entitled
Khazar Dictionary
. Pavić's novel is purportedly the result of an
attempt to reconstruct that work-which, in its original form, was
comprised of three sections, which drew respectively on Christian,
Moslem and Hebrew sources.

Did you get that?   In other words, this is a work of fiction that
aims to recreate an allegedly non-fiction (but actually non-existent)
book, that is comprised of three separate works about an imaginary
incident that supposedly took place as part of a real historical event.   
As if this is not sufficiently complex, The Dictionary of the Khazars
(the real Pavić novel from 1984, not the imaginary 1691 reference
work) has been released in two separate versions, a male edition
and a female edition.  

My copy is a female edition, and back before the days of the
Internet, a reader who wanted to compare texts with the male
version would have been forced to find a copy of it and track
down the contrasting sentences-which, as it turns out, are limited
to a single paragraph.  Nowadays a simple Google search will
lead you to the alternative passages—although Milorad Pavić's
heirs are robbed out of the potential royalties of selling two
copies to every curious reader.

I won't be a spoiler here, but I will say that a comparison of the
two passages raises more questions than answers.  Then again,
that is true of this entire novel, which may take on the superficial
appearance of a reference work, but hardly lives up to the one
essential requirement of a dictionary, which is to provide clear,
concise explanations.  Instead Pavić prefers to play the role of
obscurantist, spreading confusion, cultivating contradiction, and
instilling a sense of mystery into even the most ordinary events.  

One of Pavić's specialty is (allow me to coin a term)
the 'closed aphorism', short statements or phrases that
seem to offer a kernel of wisdom, but actually present a dead
end. Any profound meaning must be supplied by the reader,
and Pavić will make the task as hard as possible.  Here are
some of his closed aphorisms:

"Dreams are the Friday to what in reality are called Saturday."

"He who takes a bite in his mouth will not be able to say his name;
he who says his name will make the bite in his mouth bitter."

"Remembering is permanent circumcision."  

"Time comes from the South and crosses the Danube at
Trajan's Bridge."

"One cannot speak about half the soul.  Otherwise we could
keep one half in heaven and the other in hell."

"All roads to Palestine; none from it."

Yes, they are like Chinese fortune cookie wisdom from a bad Philip
K. Dick novel.  And the muddled, mystical tone to these phrases
matches the ambiance of the plot, which often takes on a
dreamlike quality.  Dreams play a prominent role in Pavić's
novel: the Khazars often turn for advice to their dream-hunters,
who have the ability to enter into these nocturnal visions, and
even follow in pursuit of a person or object from dream to dream.   

Much of the "action" of this book takes place either inside of
dreams, or as a result of them.  When the Khazar leader summons
the representatives of the three religions to his court, he initiates
their debate by asking them to interpret a dream.   In the context of
Dictionary of the Khazars, this is hardly an innocent request.  
Dreams can be both daunting and dangerous in this novel, and a
dreamer might be caught permanently in a dream from which no
awakening is possible. Even the actions of the waking life might
be controlled or influenced by someone else's dream.

The plot here resolves over the course of more than a thousand
years.  Like a few other novels with such expansive chronologies
—such as
Cloud Atlas or Gods Without Men—Pavić plays with
notions of eternal recurrence and synchronicity.  Much of the
meaning here is subject to debate and discussion, but behind
Pavić's often cumbersome mysticism, real hard-nosed issues loom.
What happens when different cultures try to appropriate the same
historical narrative?   How is personal and national identity
shaped by allegiances to different brands of metaphysics?
Above all, how do conflicts between belief systems manage to
defy the law of entropy and maintain their heat (and, often,
attendant violence) century after century?

Pavić does not have ready-made answers to these questions.  
And, despite the fact that the characters in this novel are always
ready to offer grand pronouncements and visionary solutions, I
doubt that Pavić saw that as part of his mandate in writing
Dictionary of the Khazars.  The end result is a dictionary where
almost everything is left undefined.   Oddly enough, much of the
charm of this peculiar book derives from that very paradox.  

Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture.  His most recent book is
The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.

Published April 18, 2013
a website devoted to radical,
unconventional and experimental
fiction with a particular focus on the
rise of modernism and its aftermath.
Can a Dictionary Be a Novel?
Milorad Pavić's Dictionary of the Khazars

By Ted Gioia
To purchase, click on image
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