LAST LOVE IN CONSTANTINOPLE
by Milorad Pavic
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
All of Milorad Pavic's novels have had some sort of gimmick which helps set them apart from other books published. Dictionary of the Khazars was designed to be read either straight through or by dipping into individual entries in a random order. Landscapes Painted in Tea had a crossword puzzle incorporated into the text and The Inner Side of the Wind was written as two novellas which could be read in either order. Pavic continues this practice with Last Love in Constantinople: A Tarot Novel For Divination, in which the novel can be read straight through or in a random order generated by the laying down of Tarot Cards (a method Pavic describes in his introduction). Of course, a gimmick does not necessarily make a good novel.
I'll admit to having read Last Love in Constantinople in a boring, old-fashioned linear war, beginning at page 1 and running through to page 184 without resorting to the random shuffling of cards. Even reading Last Love in Constantinople in a linear fashion doesn't mean Pavic's tale is a linear tale.
Pavic's earlier novels take place in a world in which Europe still reigns supreme even if his characters live in backwater nations. In Last Love in Constantinople, Lieutenant Sofronije Opujic is a Croat separated from his father, whom everyone seems to know, during the Napoleonic Wars. Opujic has no memories of his mother, although he knows that he grew up in her household and wants to discover who she is.
As with Pavic's earlier novels, the characters in Last Love in Constantinople seem vaguely disjointed as they go about searching for their identities and place in the world. Although Pavic has demonstrated his ability to create memorable characters, all of his characters tend to lack a sense of realism. In fact, Pavic's world is a topsy-turvy world, not merely because of the vast war raging across Europe, but because causality does not exist in the sense that the modern world understands it. At one point, Opujic eats and drinks resulting in the satiation of somebody else's hunger and thirst, a fact which is readily accepted by those around him. However, whereas an author like Joseph Heller might use this to lampoon, Pavic and his characters take it at face value as part of their world.
One of Pavic's great strengths is his ability to weave superstitions into his books in realistic, if absurd, ways. An offhand remark about turning a mirror to the wall so it doesn't attract insects or placing garlic in one's ear to ward of demons, tells us more about Opujic's world view than Pavic's description of war-torn Europe. Nearly all of Pavic's characters have an understanding of their role in Europe as a whole. These roles appear to be true statements of their position even as the reader's logical mind tells him that the characters are delusional.
Each chapter can, in many ways, stand on its own, which is important since it allows them to be read in any order. At the same time, each chapter takes on a different flavor depending on the order in which they are read since the reader has the chance to bring different amounts and types of knowledge to each chapter, resulting in a tremendously varied book completely dependant on how the reader approaches the novel.
Pavic's writing is dense and poetic (he was known for his poetry before his prose), and will not be for everyone's taste. The absurdity of his character's situations and Pavic's own refusal to acknowledge that absurdity, will further turn some readers off his writing. While Last Love in Constantinople doesn't have the impact of Pavic's first novel, A Dictionary of the Khazars, it is a strong book which a reader will want to think about rather than rush through.
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