A book written by Milorad Pavic, which was translated from the Serbo-Croatian and published in English in 1988. My favorite part of the book is the introduction, which reads as a somewhat dry, academic, factual account of the history of the Khazar people and the ‘original’ Khazar dictionary. As you read, however, the ‘facts’ get more and more bizarre, more and more unlikely, and you realize that the introduction, while loosely based on truth, is just as fictional as what comes after it. This, to me, is the best kind of moment in the experience of art. The point in time where you suddenly get the joke, the moment when you realize that what was purportedly ‘legitimate’, ‘real’, possibly boring, the kind of thing that you would have trouble paying attention to in school, is actually a game, a trick, a break from the factual and mundane and ‘adult’. Like a secret buried within a disguise, a comic book hidden inside your history text.
The introduction tells us that Khan, the leader of the Khazar Empire decided to convert his people to one of three leading religions of the time, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He invited a representative of each religion to his court, and asked each to interpret a dream that he had had. The religion of the emissary who gave the best interpretation would be the one that he’d choose. The ensuing debate is referred to as the “Khazar Polemic”. Further, we are told that the first edition of the Khazar Dictionary, written during the time of the Khazars, was the special tome of the Khazar dream hunters, who traveled within people’s dreams trying to find Adam, the initial ancestor of the human race. The original dictionary, which is referred to throughout the book, was both a dream log, and a sort of hagiography of famous dream hunters, describing their adventures and captures. In 1691 an updated version of the original was published, as the Lexicon Corsi, but this edition was destroyed save for two copies– one of which was printed in poisonous ink. Pavic’s dictionary is supposed to be, for the most part, a late 20th century reconstruction of the 17th century dictionary.
The main body of the book is written lexicon-style and divided into three sections, one for each of the three religions. Entries are listed alphabetically by name or subject, and are cross-referenced with little symbols. Some entries appear in different places in the different sections, some entries are not in all three sections. My favorite entry appears in all three, and is the story of the princess Ateh, as told through each of the three perspectives. One of the sections relates that Ateh would retire for sleep each night with letters of the Khazar alphabet inscribed on her eyelids. As the Khazar alphabet was poisonous to read, this practice served as her protection from molestation while she slept. Princess Ateh had in her possession two mirrors, one was a slow mirror, which reflected things slowly, the other was a fast mirror, which reflected things before they happened. One morning Ateh had her servants bring the two mirrors to her in bed, and while looking into them she happened to blink. As the poison letters were not yet washed from her eyelids, she was able to see them reflected, and so died “between two blinks of an eye”.
There are two versions of Pavic’s dictionary, a male version and a female version. The two are identical save for one paragraph. Somewhere in the book Pavic writes that the difference is inserted in order to bring people together – he claims to feel guilty for keeping readers immersed in a text when they could be out interacting with living, breathing, people – and so the mysterious discrepancy is given to us readers as an excuse for us to find someone in possession of an alternately gendered copy, with which to compare the two texts. This reminds me of Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler… , which is a sort of meta-book about people meeting through, and within, and because of, a text. Characters in the Khazar dictionary travel through time and space and different entries of the book in messy, dense, hypertextual ways. The alphabetizing of the entries, in itself, ensures that the chronology will be non-linear, the cross-referencing encourages us to skip from place-to-place and read by whim, as one would read random entries in a dictionary, or as one would follow links on the web. Certain themes and patterns build upon themselves in layers – the way that the book is constructed is a reflection of the content of the book, the way the characters jump from one time to another and travel within each other’s stories. The magic realism that occurs within the stories is also used in the structure of the book, the “historical” introduction being a pseudo-history, an impossibility begging suspension of disbelief. Which of course, reminds us that history is a story, written and told in many different versions, with countless revisions and discrepancies, and encompassing as much of the absurd and impossible as it does of the mundane and down-to-earth.