- Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel in 100,000 Words by Milorad Pavic, translated by Christina Pribicevic-Zoric
Hamish Hamilton, 338 pp, £11.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 241 12658 4
According to Apuleius, Pleasure is the daughter of Cupid and Psyche – of Love and the Soul, that is, a sufficiently elevated pedigree, one would have thought. Yet the British still put up a strong resistance to the idea that pleasurability might be a valid criterion in the response to literature, just as we remain dubious about the value of the ‘decorative’ in the visual arts. When Graham Greene made ‘entertainments’ a separate category from the hard stuff in his production, he rammed home the point: the difference was a moral one, a difference between reading to pass the time pleasurably – that is, trivially – and reading to some purpose.
The ‘great tradition’ does not brook even the possibility of libidinal gratification between the pages as an end in itself, and F.R. Leavis’s ‘eat up your broccoli’ approach to fiction emphasises this junkfood/wholefood dichotomy. If reading a novel – for the 18th-century reader, the most frivolous of diversions – did not, by the middle of the 20th century, make you a better person in some way, then you might as well flush the offending volume down the toilet, which was by far the best place for the undigested excreta of dubious nourishment.
The Yugoslav writer Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars is an exercise in a certain kind of erudite frivolity that does not do you good as such, but offers the cerebral pleasure of the recognition of patterning afforded by formalism, a profusion of language games, some rude mirth. In culinary terms, the book is neither tofuburger nor Big Mack, but a Chinese banquet, a multiplicity of short narratives and prose fragments at which we are invited, not to take our fill, but to snack as freely or as meagrely as we please on a wide variety of small portions of sharply flavoured delicacies, mixing and matching many different taste sensations. In other words, it is not like a novel by Penelope Lively. It will not set you up; nor will it tell you how to live. That is not what it is for.
The mother-type of these feast-like compilations is The Arabian Nights Entertainment – note the word ‘entertainment’. That shambolic anthology of literary fairy-tales linked by an exiguous narrative was originally, and still is, related to the folk-tale of peasant communities and its particular improvisatory yet regulated systems of narrative. The whole of Dictionary of the Khazars is a kind of legendary history, and some of the individual entries have considerable affinities to the folk-tale (‘The Tale of Petkutin and Kalina’ in the section called ‘The Red Book’, for example): but I suspect, not so much the influence of an oral tradition – though that’s still possible in Yugoslavia – as the influence of an aesthetic owing a good deal to Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the FolkTale, first published in Russia in 1928.
Propp’s thesis is that the traditional fairytale is not composed, but built up out of discrete narrative blocks that can be pulled down again and reassembled in different ways to make any number of other stories, or can be used for any number of other stories in combination with other narrative blocks. That is partly why there is no place for, nor possibility of, inwardness in the traditional tale, nor of characterisation in any three-dimensional way. If the European novel of the 19th and 20th centuries is closely related to gossip, to narrative arising out of conflicted character, then the folk-tale survives, in our advanced, industrialised, society, in the anecdote. Gossip would say: ‘You know the daughter of that bloke at the “Dog and Duck”? Well ...’ An anecdote might begin: ‘There was this publican’s daughter, see ...’ In our culture, the folk-tale survives in the saloon bar.
A traditional storyteller does not make things up afresh, except now and then, if the need arises. Instead, he or she selects, according to mood, whim and cultural background, the narrative segments that feel right at the time from a store acquired from a career of listening, and reassembles them in attractive, and sometimes new, ways. And that’s how formalism was born. (Italo Calvino, the most exquisite of contemporary formalists, is also, it should be remembered, editor of the classic collection of Italian fairy-tales.)
Pavic advises the reader to behave exactly like a traditional storyteller and construct his or her own story out of the ample material he has made available. The main difference is, Pavic has made all this material up by himself. ‘No chronology is observed here, nor is one necessary. Hence, each reader will put together the book for himself, as in a game of dominoes or cards.’ The book is an exercise, not in creative writing, but in creative reading. The reader can, says Pavic, rearrange the book ‘in an infinite number of ways, like a Rubic cube’.
Pavic positively invites you to join in, as if opening his imagination to the public. ‘It is an open book,’ he says in the preliminary notes, ‘and when it is shut it can be added to: just as it has its own former and present lexicographer, so it can acquire new writers, compilers, continuers.’
In a US review, Robert Coover suggested that computer hackers might make Dictionary of the Khazars their own as a prototype hypertext, unpaginated, non-sequential, that can be entered anywhere by anybody. This looks forward to a utopian, high-tech version of the oral tradition where machines do all the work whilst men and women unite in joyous and creative human pastimes. It is a prospect to make William Morris’s mind reel, publishers quail.
But who are, or were, the Khazars? ‘An autonomous and powerful tribe, a warlike and nomadic people who appeared from the East at an unknown date, driven by a scorching silence, and who, from the seventh to the tenth century, settled in the land between two seas, the Caspian and the Black’. As a nation, the Khazars no longer exist, and ceased to do so during the tenth century after ‘their conversion from their original faith, unknown to us today, to one (again, it is not known which) of three known religions of the past and present – Judaism, Islam or Christianity’.
The Dictionary purports to be, with some additions, the reprint of an edition of a book published by the Pole Joannes Daubmannus in 1691, which was ‘divided into three dictionaries: a separate glossary of Moslem sources on the Khazar question, an alephbetised list of materials drawn from Hebrew writings and tales, and a third dictionary compiled on the basis of Christian accounts of the Khazar question’. So the same characters and events are usually seen three times, each from the perspective of a different history and set of cultural traditions, and may be followed through the three books cross-wise, if you wish. The ‘ancient’ texts are organised according to the antiquarian interests of the 17th century. As in The Arabian Nights, an exiguous narrative set in the present day is interwoven throughout the three volumes of the dictionary and provides some sort of climax.
The most obvious immediate inspiration for this ‘plot’ is surely a certain Volume XLVI of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia (New York, 1917), itself a ‘literal but delinquent reprint of the Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1902’, in which Bioy Cesares and Jorge Luis Borges discovered the first recorded reference to the land of Uqbar. But instead of, like Borges, writing a story about a fake reference book that invades the real world, Pavic has set to and compiled the book itself, a book that contains a whole lost world, with its heroes, its rituals, its deaths, its mysteries, and especially its theological disputations, providing a plausible-enough-sounding apparatus of scholarly references that involve a series of implicit jokes about theories of authenticity just as the skewed versions of characters such as Princess Ateh, recurring three times, involve implicit jokes about cultural relativity.
Unless, of course, these aren’t jokes at all. Yugoslavia is a federation of states with extraordinarily diverse cultural histories that came together as a nation almost by accident in 1918, with a sizeable Moslem population, to boot. This idea of a tripartite version of an imaginary history ought to appeal to the British, since the United Kingdom is also a union of principalities with extraordinarily diverse cultural histories, and a significant Moslem minority, too.
There is a blatant quality of fakery about the Dictionary. One imagines Pavic gleefully setting to with a Black and Decker drill, inserting artificial worm-holes into his synthetic oak beams. This fakery, this purposely antiqued and distressed surface, is what makes Pavic’s book look so Post-Modern as to be almost parodically fashionable, the perfect type of those Euro-best-sellers such as Patrick Susskind’s Perfume and Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose that seem, to some British critics, to spring from an EEC conspiracy to thwart exports of genuine, wholesome, straightforward British fiction the same way French farmers block the entry of English lamb. However, Yugoslavia is not a member of the Common Market and the British have developed a nervous tendency to label anything ‘Post-Modern’ that doesn’t have a beginning, a middle and an end in that order.
In Yugoslavia, according to Martin Seymour-Smith, ‘except for a few years after Tito came to power in 1945, Modernism has flourished almost, if not quite, as it wished’ (Guide to World Literature, edition of 1985). Dictionary of the Khazars fulfils, almost too richly, all Wallace Stevens’s prescriptions in ‘Notes towards a Supreme Fiction’:
it must be abstract
it must change
it must give pleasure.
Most of the time, Pavic speaks in the language of romantic Modernism – that is, Surrealism. Al Bakri, the Spaniard, dies ‘dreaming of salty female breasts in a gravy of saliva and toothache’. The Princess Ateh composes a prayer: ‘On our ship, my father, the crew swarms like ants: I cleaned it this morning with my hair and they crawl up the clean mast and strip the green sails like sweet vine leaves into their anthills.’ A man, a certain Dr Ismail Suk, waking, blinks ‘with eyes hairy as testicles’. This is the characteristic speech of high Surrealism, with its clash of imagery and deformation of meaning.
Dr Suk is the hero of a section called ‘The Story of the Egg and the Violin Bow’ that boasts all the inscrutability of Surrealist narrative plus a quality of what one can only call the ‘mercantile fantastic’ reminiscent of the short stories of Bruno Schulz, with their bizarre and ominous shops and shopkeepers. ‘The shop was empty except for a hen nestled in a cap in the corner. She cocked one eye at Dr Suk and saw everything edible in him.’ The Polish woman who will murder Dr Suk is called Dr Dorothea Schulz.
In fact, there is a strong sense of pastiche everywhere, most engagingly in the collection of Islamic sources on the Khazar question, although the poem in question purports to have been written by the Khazar princess Ateh. It is a piece of spoof Kafka. A woman travelling to a distant school to take a test is subjected to bureaucratic misinformation and then told: ‘you can’t reach the school today. And that means not ever. Because the school will no longer exist as of tomorrow. You have missed your life’s destination ...’
But this is a revisionist version of Kafka. Once her destination is withheld from her, the traveller searches for the significance of her journey in the journey itself – and finds it in one luminous memory, of a table with food and wine. ‘On the table by the food a candle with a drop of flame on the top; next to it the Holy Book and the month of Jemaz-ul-Aker flowing through it.’ A happy ending!
There is the casual acceptance of the marvellous common to both Surrealism and the folk-tale: ‘Ibn Ashkany was himself a very deft player. There exists a written record of his fingering for a song, so we know that he used more than ten fingers to play his instruments.’ (In fact, Satan used this name for a time, and we learn how he played the lute with both his fingers and the tip of his tail.) A band of Greek merchants are ‘so hirsute that the hair on their chests had a part like the hair on their heads’.
But the sense of the marvellous is most often created simply by the manipulation of language: ‘Avram Brankovich cuts a striking figure. He has a broad chest the size of a cage for large birds or a small beast.’ One way and another, the task of Pavic’s translator, Christina Pribicevic-Zoric, must have been awesome, for among the Khazars we are living in a world of words as such. The vanished world of the Khazars is constructed solely out of words. A dictionary itself is a book in which words provide the plot. The Khazars are nothing if not people of the Book, dithering as they did between the three great faiths, the sacred texts of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. One of the copies of the 1691 edition of the Dictionary, we are told, was printed with a poisoned ink: ‘The reader would die on the ninth page at the words Verbum caro factum est. (“The Word became Flesh.”)’ Almost certainly, something metaphysical is going on.
The Khazars indefatigably enter that most metaphysical of states, dreaming. ‘A woman was sitting by the fire, her kettle of broth babbling like bursting boils. Children were standing in line with their plates and dogs, waiting. She ladled out the broth to the children and animals and immediately Masudi knew that she was portioning out dreams from the kettle.’
The Dream Hunters are a sect of Khazar priests. ‘They could read other people’s dreams, live and make themselves at home in them ...’ That is the Christian version. The Moslem Dictionary is more forthcoming: ‘If all human dreams could be assembled together, they would form a huge man, a human being the size of a continent. This would not be just any man, it would be Adam Ruhani, the heavenly Adam, man’s angel ancestor, of whom the imams speak.’
The book of Hebrew sources is most explicit. ‘The Khazars saw letters in people’s dreams, and in them they looked for primordial man, for Adam Cadmon, who was both man and woman and born before eternity. They believed that to every person belongs one letter of the alphabet, that each of these letters constitutes part of Adam Cadmon’s body on earth, and that these letters converge in people’s dreams and come to life in Adam’s body.’ (I am not sure that Pavic thinks of Freud when he thinks of dreams.)
So we can construct our primal ancestor out of the elements of our dreams, out of the elements of the Dictionary, just as Propp thought that if one found sufficient narrative elements and combined them in the right order, one would be able to retell the very first story of all – ‘it would be possible to construct the archetype of the fairy tale not only schematically ... but concretely as well.’
Please do not run away with the idea that this is a difficult book, although it is flamboyantly and intentionally confusing. I first came across the Dictionary of the Khazars in the following manner. Last summer, on the beach of a rather down-market Italian resort, I was staying, for reasons I won’t bore you with, at the best hotel. Under a beach umbrella there was a wonderfully extrovert French businessman and his wife, who originally hailed from Yorkshire (‘I was passing through Paris thirty-five years ago and I’m still passing through’). He was recovering from a bypass operation; under the sun-tan oil his chest was ravelled. They first attracted my attention in the hotel restaurant because they ordered everything flambé. She, in a white jump suit printed with huge orange flowers, danced on the beach with my little boy. Meanwhile her husband was reading Dictionary of the Khazars. It had just been published in France, it was his holiday book. He kept reading bits aloud to her: ‘Kyr Avram is sometimes wont to say, “A woman without a behind is like a village without a church!” ’ ‘I’m all right, then,’ she said. He was laughing so much I feared for his scars. At dinner, they read bits to the waiter as he flambéd their steaks.
I thought that if this wonderful man and woman were enjoying the book so much, then so would I. In fact, perhaps the best way of tackling it is to read bits aloud, to treat it like a game. In his New York Times review, Coover suggested that, if marketed as a board game, it might soon outsell ‘Dungeons and Dragons’, which is probably true. It is a book to play with, to open up and take things out of, a box of delights and a box of tricks. It is a novel without any sense of closure, the product of a vast generosity of the imagination – user-friendly, you could say, and an invitation to invent for yourself.
The book, by the way, comes in two editions, a male one and a female one, differing by 17 lines, perhaps because the scribe Father Theoctist Nikolsky avers that ‘masculine and feminine stories cannot have the same ending.’ Why not? But the gender difference between the editions is not crucial, in spite of the warning on the jacket, although the very concept is the only point in the book where Pavic’s invention nearly founders under an access of sheer cuteness.