Friday, August 31, 2007

The Dictionary Of The Khazars

The Dictionary of the Khazar's, a novel in hypertext, is one of the most original, bold, daring, brilliant and wonderful piece of writing that one could come across. I read it last year and have read it in parts again since then. I got to know this novel by chance, what gifted chance!

Written by the Serbian novelist Milorad Pavic, it has been brilliantly translated by Christina Pribevic-Zoric . Milorad Pavic is quite well known, beyond Serbia. He is a poet and literary historian too. He has published numerous novels and essays, but my first encounter was the Dictionary, and it is a rarity, a pleasure and acutely sensational. The novel is about the historical ethnic group of the Khazar's, a nomadic group of people who disintegrated and seem to have disappeared by the 10th century. The Khazar's, ( Turkish Hazer, Persian Khazar, Tatar hazer, Latin Gazari ) converted en masse to Judaism perhaps but had alliances with numerous dynasties. This is known historically. However, Pavic then constructs his novel and weaves story upon story, myth upon myth.

The khazars were powerful once, warlike and nomadic who came from the east and settled in the caspian. They fought against the Arabs and after that vanished. They converted to one of the three monotheistic faiths but which one? and after they converted, the state collapsed. This is told in the beginning by the writer. But much before we read.......we are warned......
here lies the reader who will never open this book. he lies here forever dead. The writer has instructions on how and when to read this novel and only if one has to. It should be read the way one catches leap-fever, an illness that strikes only on feminine days of the week.

Fundamentally, the novel is written in the form of a usual dictionary. The book is divided into three sections, each section devoted to Christian, Jewish and Islamic versions, named after the three religious colours respectively, Red, Yellow and Green. Each item, word or character has a different story attributed or a different text in each of the three sections; for eg, the princess Ateh has sections devoted to her in the three sections and in each of these, you get to hear a different person, thus what you believe depends upon which source, which history and which fable you might want to trust. You can read it like a dictionary, from back to front or start in the middle for instance. It hardly matters what you do so long as you look up a word, event or person. Each section can be read linearly or not, depending on your whim. The most intriguing thing is this......the novel has a male and a female edition, and the difference is one paragraph!

This is hypertext at its amazing best. The prose is Arabian nights like, stories told so delicately, words flowing so effortlessly that one gasps in wonder. Pavic has such fertile imagination, such powers of invention that it seems this is the work of a wizard. However, this effect just lulls you, for this is a deeply symbolic work and it is so unabashedly allegorical and reflective. I thought the novel is a response to two things.....a deconstruction of conventional history writing, wherein most people fail to recognize how history is not just facts but facts plus myth plus fiction. Also, it tells the reader the importance of recognizing and believing your interpretation of history, of events, both new and old and thus the inherent bias in understanding history. Thus we have facts but we also have the interpretation of those facts.

The whole book can be quoted. I am not getting carried away here. The Times called it phantasmagoric, surrealistic; the N Y Times ebullient, and the Sunday Times simply a masterpiece. The influence of Borges is evident but Pavic has his own style. Consider this..............
.Ku- a type of fruit from the Caspian sea. the Khazar's cultivate a kind of fruit that grows nowhere else in the world. It is covered with fish scales, it grows on very tall trees, and the fruit on the branches look like the live fish innkeepers hang up by the fins above the doorway to indicate that they serve fish chowder. sometimes the fruit releases voices that sound like a chaffinch. it has a cold and somewhat salty taste. it carries a pit that pulsates like a heart, the Khazar saying goes the Arabs will eat us thinking, like the hawk, that we are fish but we are ku. the word ku was the only word the devil left in the memory of the Khazar princess Ateh after she forgot her own language. sometimes at night you can hear ku-ku! that is the Khazar princess uttering the only word she knows and weeping as she tries to remember her forgotten poems.

Coming from a Serbian writer, this novel is politically important too. Even though it was published in 1988, much before mayhem was unleashed on Bosnia, it could be seen as a symbol or totem for the disintegration of Yugoslavia. I think that this might not have been the writers point however. His sweep is broader, more fantastic, for by talking about the Khazar's, he wants us to question the aspects of history that we are witnessing everyday, events like the Iraq war now, where debate still rages as to why the war actually happened, after millions have been displaced and thousands killed. Thus this sordid convulsion can have numerous histories depending upon your political persuasion or your area of origin. The real lesson must be however for the objective reasoner to discern as to the actuality of facts, if facts are true too.

Notwithstanding its concerns, the novel has unending literary merits for it is the dream child of fable married to a modern novel, allegory weaved with facts, drama and surreality merging with a prose of hypnotic, alluring and magnificent charm. I own the female version of this novel, but have been reassured that the male one is not different. For those who are martyrs to literature, Milorad Pavic is the writer to read.


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