Real Fictional Dreams: A review of Dictionary of the Khazars

Dictionary of the Khazars (the Male Edition)

by

Milorad Pavić

(Penguin, 1989)

I heard of this book on Alec Nevala-Lee’s blog. I bought a copy (the ‘male’ edition) because I saw it when I was looking for something else (this turns out to be quite apposite) and Alec had intrigued me. I read it partly in order — I read the prefatory material first and the Appendices last — and partly out of order, at first by following cross-references, later by looking for sections I had not yet read (I marked the margin when I read a section). Several sections I reread to refresh my memory — it took me some months to get through, as do all books in these days of limited discretionary time. I once read typically a hundred novels in a year, now I would estimate an order of magnitude fewer.

The book — should I describe it? It calls itself a dictionary, but it is really three parallel encyclopaedias, each a collection of material related to the Khazars, a people from between the seas, Caspian and Black. One book relates ‘Christian Sources on the Khazar Question’, one Islamic and one Hebrew. Entries cross-reference each other. As they are read, they flesh out a picture of the (mythological) Khazars and the people who have studied them. Pavić’s Khazars are not the historical ones. They are a suitably elusive framework to support a body of myths, fables, tales, biographies, and prose poems.

My reaction to the book is extremely ambivalent. Some of the entries are quite brilliant; streams of allusive, elusive metaphor, extremely effective evocations of place and person, and fascinating incidents and actions. The overarching puzzle of what happened to the Khazars sustains interest on the large scale, while the separate entries are fascinating in themselves. There are numerous subsidiary puzzles. Each religion’s account believes that the Khazars were converted to its cause. Figures with two thumbs on each hand recur through time, actions are repeated across time.  One must enjoy puzzles to enjoy this book, I think. The rate of invention is breathtaking, from a striking metaphor to tale after tale after tale, to powerful insights about the fundamentals of life, religion, the universe and everything. I liked the references to Constantinople and the Byzantines, a part of history I find particularly fascinating. The breadth of Pavić’s imagination, erudition and insight is overwhelming. The formal inventiveness of the book and its ambition are equally daunting. And it meets the challenges it sets itself. It is a book that is worth reading. I’m very glad I read it, and it reminds me of how the internet allows people to connect easily based solely on interests and irrespective of geography. I read Analog, I read a story by Alec Nevala-Lee, I found his blog, I saw his comments on this book, and now I’ve read a book that enriches my life. Which may make my next comments seem incongruous; but if any text invites a multi-faceted and possibly self-contradictory approach to a review, it is this one. So…

Any reading experience is an asymmetric collaboration between author and reader. Some books ask little of the reader and lay out a clear, driving plot of Brave Men at Sea, or something. This books says much, leaves yet more unsaid or implied, and asks the reader to make many connections, and I am left with the feeling that I failed to make enough of them. I suspect I am of too literal a turn of mind to fully enter into the world of the book. I tried to meet it on its own terms, unsuccessfully. In the book’s attempts to grapple with big themes meaning seems to elude me. I mean, “I decided that nothing happens in the flow of time, that the world does not change through the years but inside itself and through space simultaneously…” and “time is the part of eternity that runs late” — these phrases (and quite a few others) mean nothing that I can discern. My logic kicks in, pulls a face and says “Well, that’s just high-sounding nonsense.”

Dreams are important in the book, since we are often told that everyone’s dreams are the substance of someone else’s life, and the Khazars were famous for their dream hunters, who could follow figures from dream to dream and dreamer to dreamer. Perhaps the whole book is a dream. It certainly makes oblique connections redolent of dream logic.

And, a deeply personal reaction, I felt stupid on finishing the book, a paradox since I also felt richer for reading it.  I seem to have missed so much, really a measure of the richness of the book but nagging nonetheless. The last note in the book tells me that when I compare versions ‘the book will fit together as a whole’. I did that and it does not, for me. On finishing it I spent quite a while flipping through the book looking for something I had missed. I reread sections, I read the appendices again. I have figured out the key points of the Khazar story as the author lays it out, I think, but much of the book means less to me than plainly it should. I have a sense of frustration.  I seem to have failed to understand what I am being told. I am pleased therefore to see the word ‘bewildering’ in the quoted reviews.

It’s a marvellous book. You should read it. So should I.

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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

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