by Milorad Pavic

Translated by Christine Pribicevic-Zoric




Dictionary of the Khazars
Cover by Kang Yi

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

First, a short history lesson.  The Khazars were an Asiatic people who settled in the Caucasus in the mid sixth century.  In the eighth century, caught between the Orthodox Byzantines and the expanding Muslims, the Khazars invited representatives of both faiths, as well as a Jewish rabbi, to debate the merits of each religion.  Following the debate, the Khazars converted, possibly en masse, possibly only the ruling class, to Judaism.  The served as a buffer between Byzantium and the Muslim world for a couple of centuries before they were eradicated.  In his book, it can hardly be called a novel, Dictionary of the Khazars, Serb author Milorad Pavic begins with this historical event and throws a question into it.  He supposes that it is unknown which religion the Khazars selected.  Christian sources, Muslim sources and Jewish sources each claim victory in the Khazar Polemic.

However, the format of Dictionary of the Khazars is what really sets this book apart.  The stories, for there are at least three interwoven tales, are told in the form of encyclopedia entries from three points of view, Christian, Muslim and Jewish.   These entries are cross-referenced to related entries within their own point of view and the other points of view.  The reader can choose to read the book from cover to cover, as with a normal novel, or by reading the thematic entries across the different religions, or random entries, and emerge with different views of the book for each reading.

The story lines are set in the eighth century at the time of the Khazar Polemic, in the seventeenth century surrouding the original publication of the fictional Dictionary of the Khazars, and at an academic conference at the end of the twentieth century.   As these stories progress, the barriers of time fall away, wreaking havoc with conventional notions of cause and effect so that events in the twentieth century can effect the happenings more than a millennium earlier.  Inexplicable events which occur in one time frame get an explanation, of sorts, when reading up on the occurences of a different time frame.

Pavic introduces several mysteries into his novel, both historical and otherwise.   Because of his rather unconventional way of writing, he never really provides a denouement, although the alert reader can come to some pretty firm suppositions as to the culprits for the different events.

As if Dictionary of the Khazars doesn't have enough gimmickry in it (although the writing and stories rise well above simple gimmicks), the book was issued in two different editions, which Pavic calls the male and female edition.  The two books differ by a mere fifteen lines, which Pavic claims are crucial to the reader's understanding of the book.  Having read both sets of those lines (the appear in italics on page 293 of the hardcover edition), I fail to see a major difference in the two versions.

Dictionary of the Khazars is one of those books which seems to hold some vast hidden philosophical truth.  Certainly it holds insight int Pavic's own world view, colored by his life in Yugoslavia.  Whether it is worth the effort to decipher exactly what Pavic is trying to say is debateable, but playing around with the entries in Dictionary of the Khazars and determining which way the story works is definitely an entertaining way to read a book.

Purchase this book from (Male Version) (Female Version)

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