Monday, 31 July 2000

Milorad Pavic: The Dictionary of the Khazars (1989)

Translation: Christina Pribicevic-Zoric, 1989
Edition: Hamish Hamilton, 1989
Review number: 557

The Dictionary of the Khazars has one of the most unusual structures of any novel; as its title implies, it is written in the form of a dictionary, with alphabetically arranged entries. It is also about two other dictionaries, one a seventeenth century collection of material relating to the Khazars (a people inhabiting the Balkans in the early middle ages), and the other a book used by the Khazars for the interpretation of dreams. This triple meaning is typical of the book, and enables Pavic to include all kinds of material: historical documents about the Khazars (particularly the Khazar polemic, the most famous incident in their history); information about the compilers of the seventeenth century dictionary and their esoteric interests; and a murder mystery involving twentieth century researchers specialising in the Khazars. To complicate the structure still further, there are two versions of the novel (called male and female); these differ in one paragraph, which is the one which assigns blame for the murder. (This is a most annoying little foible.) The dictionary is also divided into three, with entries relating to Christian, Jewish and Islamic sources about the Khazars - the polemic referred to was an argument between representatives of these religions, as a result of which the Khazars were to decide which religion to take.

There are many criticisms which can be made of the book, which is rather of its time. Obvious influences, at least in the English translation, include the fashionable Salman Rushdie, Umberto Eco and John Barth, though it never has the quality of these authors. The dictionary idea is not fully carried out, which makes the novel distinctly easier to read but diminishes the point of the gimmick. There are only a small number of entries, most of which are quite extended (twenty pages or more). Much of the occult and psychological material is rather pointless and not very interesting, such as the idea that all copies of the seventeenth century dictionary were destroyed except one, printed in poisoned ink which killed all who read it. This could be the basis of something quite fascinating, if it were related to something else, such as censorship of books which might make readers think in a different way from that desired by their rulers. The major problem it that the writing is not as good as the writer thinks it is - which of course may be due to the translator rather than the author; much of it has a distinctly smug quality which is rather off putting.

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