Mysterious princesses. Mirrors that show things at varying speeds. Saving up days of the week to spend at one go (in eggs!). A man with ears sharp enough to slice bread. Inheritance laws improbably based on the color of beards. The dreams of parrots.
All of this, and more, can be found in The Dictionary of the Khazars (1989) by Serbian author Milorad Pavic.
The book, as the title might clue you in, is not a traditional narrative in the least. Instead it is a is a dictionary, an encyclopedia, a glossary. Broken into three strands, Jewish, Islam, and Christian, with helpful religious icons to clue you into as which strand you are in, the book is a series of fictional entries and information on a very real people: The Khazars. In the early medieval period, the Khazars were a power on the southern Russian and Ukranian steppe. Caught between rival powers. this polyglot polity of a lot of different peoples, beliefs and subcultures struggled to hold their modest power, or even just survive, as a people in the wake of their more avaricious and manipulative neighbors. The Dictionary presents us with a fictionalized magic realism-infused version of this very real people, mixing myth, magic and the author’s invention into the stories contained in the dictionary entries.
The central question in the midst of all of these tales in the book is a crucial one given the tri-religious breakup of the book’s entries: According to the world of Dictionary, the Khazars mass converted to one of these three religions…but which one did the Khazars choose? Even if they rose, and now fell into the sands of time as a people, the central question of which religion they chose, which path they decided to take, which choice they made is a haunting question that runs through all of the entries of the Dictionary. Each of the three strands claims the Khazars converted to that religion–but which ones are lying? Are all of them lying? None of them? It’s not the only question, or only theme of the book, but it is the central one that the Dictionary circles around. The entries, especially across strands (some figures and events show up in multiple strands) comment and contradict and refract on each other. Its meta-fictional, with unreliable and fragmentary parts of stories that the reader, by the choices they make in the order of reading, can be put together in a number of viable ways.
The Dictionary even uses a level of meta-fiction in its overall construction. The book discusses the construction of its own narrative. The Dictionary of the Khazars that you hold in your hands is really a recent reconstruction of a previous attempt at the Dictionary written in the 17th century by a Polish scholar. That edition (as this Dictionary painfully admits) was more complete, somewhat differently formatted, and has its own strange history and fate, which the Dictionary recounts.
A conceit I fell for at the time is the idea that the book came out in male and female editions, with differences between them. Not wanting to miss out, I bought both editions at the same time, hoping not to miss anything. My best efforts, and to my discerning eye, however, found that the differences between these two editions were, at best, slight and that difference was rather subtle. The difference, taken together, though, does provide a definitive answer to that central crucial question that the Dictionary plays with and tries to avoid answering.
The Dictionary of the Khazars, though, is using the Khazars as a stalking horse, a metaphor if you will. Having religious, mini-dictionary strands based on each of the three Abrahamic religions weave together to tell the fictional stories of the semi-fictional Khazars is clearly a way to work through the complicated religious conflicts of a different region of the world–the contemporary Balkan world of Pavic’s own experience. Written before the terrible conflicts that erupted in the 1990’s, the book is not a failed plea for a tolerance but rather a celebration and explication of the complexity of the religious and cultural life of the Balkans. A set of peoples and religions, sitting cheek by jowl, in the shadow of other powers, trying to find their way and their path.
I am certain that the work could only have been written when it was. By the 1990’s, when ethnic and religious conflict wracked the former Yugoslavia, the Balkan world that Pavic alludes to in painting the Khazars as pawns of religions and powers around them had changed into open bloody conflict, ethnic cleansing, and religious intolerance. Like the kingdom of the Khazars itself that falls into the cracks of history, the Balkan world that Pavic alludes to, a pressure cooker of ethnicities and religions still holding together at the time of his writing, exploded, and is now something inescapably transformed and changed.
It is not lost on me, either, that part of the land inhabited by the real Khazars — the southern steppe around the Black Sea, the eastern part of the nation of Ukraine — is, as of the time of this writing, having its own questions about its identity and future play out on the streets, with violence, and with external powers pushing it to-and-fro. History, it seems, is repeating itself.
The hypertext nature of the Dictionary, on the other hand, works much better in the modern internet age than in the straightforward print text of the original work I read in the mid 1990’s. The “Androgynous” e-book version of the Dictionary, which contains the aforementioned difference between the “male” and “female” editions is definitely the preferred and best way to experience the Dictionary today and it is the edition I recommend to readers.
Regardless of editions, the central appeal of the book is the wondrousness of the text. It’s frustrating, strange, unmooring, contradictory, dream-like, and challenging. It’s not a book to read through front to back; its a book to be dipped into, explored, where you run along strands and infer cross-references, making connections perhaps unintended by the author. Pavic’s games and experimentation with narrative, knowledge, and the limits and boundaries of narrative put the book in the same league and same vein as the work of Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino, and readers and fans of the latter two authors should not hesitate to pick up The Dictionary of the Khazars.