Monday, November 19, 2012

Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel

Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel
by Milorad Pavic
English translation by Christina Pribicevic-Zoric
Published in 1984 (in English in 1988)
Published in English by Vintage International
ISBN: 0-679-72461-3

The Khazars were a people who ruled a large state in eastern Europe over a thousand years ago.

That much is true history. Everything that follows is fiction. I'm going to quickly summarize the plot as I understand it. Bear in mind that the novel is constructed very non-linearly, and I personally didn't grasp the 'big picture' until I'd nearly finished the book, so some might consider the next two paragraphs to be spoilers.

In the 17th century, three individuals (one Christian, one Muslim, one Jewish) attempted to compile a history of the Khazar people, particularly the details surrounding the conversion of the Khazar government to Judaism in the late 8th/early 9th centuries (possibly an actual historical event). This history was published and subsequently suppressed.

Three hundred years later, three scholars grew interested in the 'Khazar question' and attempted to instigate new research into the Khazars. All plotlines converge in a series of violent events in an Istanbul hotel one morning in 1982.

That much I am sure of. There is a great deal more going on in the book, much of it concerning the metaphysics of dreams, with (possibly) a great deal of eastern European folklore thrown in as well. I think.

The book is divided into three sections: Christian, Muslim, and Jewish sources on the Khazar Question. Within each section, entries in alphabetical order give varying points of view on: a) medieval Khazar history, b) the 17th-century individuals compiling Khazar history, and c) the 20th-century individuals compiling Khazar history.

Throughout, the writing style is one that makes liberal use of surrealistic asides and references to fantastical events. As I mentioned, I feel like a lot went right over my head due to my ignorance of folkloric traditions, although it is also possible that many of the odder asides are veiled references to other sections of the narrative, and might become clearer on a second reading.

Another thing to remember is that author Milorad Pavic was Serb, and apparently his fictional Khazaria is to a certain extent a satire of Serbia. Pavic's Khazar state exists under an unusual administrative system that guarantees that non-Khazar ethnic minorities legally dominate ethnic Khazars, despite the fact that Khazars outnumber all other ethnic groups combined. Presumably this is a satire of Yugoslavia before it collapsed, although my knowledge of that part of the world and that period of history is far too meager for me to appreciate it.

To those who are midway through Dictionary of the Khazars and are struggling, do not worry! There is indeed a coherent plot, although you may be finishing up the novel's final third before you can clearly see its structure. As for me, I think the best thing for me to do might be to put it to one side for a few months, then pick it up again and start re-reading from the beginning. I suspect I'll get far more out of it on my second time through.

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