A week or two back, some person unknown in the U.S. Central time zone reached this site through a Google search for "milorad pavic news 2004". This site turns out to be the #3 result for that search, even though I have never actually written about Milorad Pavić. Until now.
Milorad Pavić is the Serbian writer, author of the Dictionary of the Khazars, a novel that has occupied a place on the "Books" list down the sidebar for at least the past year. The Dictionary is a novel in the form of a lexicon -- consisting of 100,000 words in the original Serbian -- and purports both to be about and to be the compilation of knowledge concerning the Khazars, an historical people of the Balkans who, we are told,in the 10th Century, finding themselves in the thick of the collision of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, called wise men from each of the three religions to come before their chieftains to persuade them to which of the three the Khazars should convert. It remains a matter of dispute which of the three the Khazars actually chose to follow. Upon making that choice, however, the Khazars as such disappeared. Each of the three faiths thereafter produced its own dictionary of Khazar-related information.
[Digression: The actual Khazars -- most of whom are generally held to have embraced Judaism -- are interesting on their own terms, as you can learn here and elsewhere. Arthur Koestler, in The Thirteenth Tribe, apparently posits that the Khazars were the principal source of the Ashkenazim. Many others disagree with that theory.]
The Dictionary collects, with scholarly apparatus, the three dictionaries produced by the three religions, which cross-reference one another and provide differing views of related topics over a wide swath of space and time. A man meets his double and falls into irreversible sleep. Another's life ends because of the breaking of an egg. A scholar is shot and killed, possibly for possession of a copy of the very book we are reading. Dreams are hunted. Throughout, the fundamental strangeness of the Balkans' place at the crossroads of theology, philosophy and history over several millennia thrums away below the surface.
Because the Dictionary is a dictionary, it can be read in any order. While the traditional front to back trek from introduction to conclusion will work, it is not mandatory. Dip in anywhere, follow the cross-references (color coded) from article to article across the three cultures, or simply read at random and the book will still weave some variation on its particular spell. Compounding the possible readings, the book exists in two editions, "male" and "female," differing from one another in only one respect, a passage of some seventeen lines (each gender of which is conveniently reproduced here).
The Dictionary was Pavić's first novel; later books of his are based on similarly open-ended structures: one is built on a crossword, reading differently depending on your choice of vertical or horizontal clues; another begins from the two ends, meeting in the middle; a third is based on the Tarot, and can be read based on your own layout of the cards.
Plainly, we are in the realm of 20th-21st Century literature that encompasses the likes of Borges and Calvino, with a great dollop of mysticism and "magical realism" a la Garcia Marquez (but without the hardcore cynicism of American tricksters such as Barth or Pynchon, or the archness of Umberto Eco). It is a heady brew.
Pavićentric resources online are numerous, with Khazars.com the central station. There you can find such items as
- Links to two short stories that, to varying degrees, take advantage of hypertext to allow the reader to choose the paths by which the tales unfold:
- The Glass Snail -- a Christmas story, possibly involving reincarnated Egyptian royalty and resembling "The Gift of the Magi" if only O. Henry had included more shoplifting and explosives.
- Damascene -- "a tale for computers and compasses" set in the late 18th century and beginning with the appearance of some 800 master builders, each named "John."
(Those with the ability and inclination to read these two stories in the original Serbian can find them here.)
- A section on Pavić in theater including photos from the adaptation of the Dictionary (the staging of which looks to have resembled Peter Brook's version of The Mahabharata), and from the Moscow Art Theater's production of For Ever and a Day, a "theatre menu" each performance of which is different and which, judging by the photos, appears in part to be the touching story of a young woman's love for her cello. (Here is an article describing the mechanics of the latter play, which also boasts both a "male" and a "female" ending.)
- A link to a comic-book-style version (from "Heavy Metal" magazine) of another Pavić story, Wedgwood Tea Set (which ceases being work-safe around page 9). The same story apparently forms the basis of a 1993 film, "Byzantine Blue," about which I have been able to learn very little. Pavić mentions the film -- and the "Byzantine mathematics" that appear in the story -- in this 1998 interview, which also includes this exchange, which makes as good an end as any for this post:
[Interviewer]: Have you ever thought about what is actually the destination of your existence?
[Pavić]: To rescue as many pieces of beauty as possible. Tons of beauty sink every day in the Danube. Nobody notices. The one who notices it must do something to rescue it. To rescue as much beauty as he can. That is actually the role of an artist. He is the lifeguard of beauty.