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Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel in 100,000 Words Paperback – October 28, 1989

4.3 out of 5 stars 49 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Written in Serbo-Croatian, first published in Yugoslavia, already a bestseller in Germany and France, this whimsical "lexicon" can be read on many levels. Pavic, professor of Serbian literature at the University of Belgrade, cares passionately about literature and he teases us through the unusual format of this novel to explore the subject. Entries are alphabetically arranged and can be perused at random, read start to finish or back to front. The publisher is offering two different versions, designated "male" and "female," and differing by only 15 lines. The narrative purports to be the historical record of the Khazars, a fictional Indo-European tribe that vanished in the 10th century. According to legend, the Khazar ruler asked a rabbi, a monk and a dervish to interpret a portentous dream; the winner would gain the conversion of the Khazar people to Judaism, Christianity or Islam. The result of this contest was lost in time. Interest in the "Khazar Polemic" prompted the Serbian warlord Avram Brankovich to compile a dictionary on the Khazars with the help of his retinue in the 17th century. Codified by a monk, the dictionary subsequently was 99% destroyed; one copy was found and revised; now it has fallen into the hands of modern-day scholars. Pavic is a 20th century Scheherazade, spinning a series of interconnected folk tales, drawing on a vast source of literary references, eventually metamorphosing his narrative into a murder mystery. Readers who are intrigued by literary conundrums will enjoy entering this magical world with Pavic as their guide. 40,0000 combined first printing.
Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Library Journal

Christina Pribicevic-Zoric. LC 88-45262. $19.95. f Yugoslav writer Pavic assures us that the Khazars were a nomadic people who settled near the Black Sea in the 7th century A.D. "But their origins remain unknown and all traces of them have vanished." A thousand years later a Polish printer incorporated surviving knowledge of the Khazars into a dictionaryalmost all copies of which were burned by the Inquisition. Pavic's interlocking series of witty and fantastic tales purports to update that edition, but by now all "facts" about the forgotten nation are doubly conjectural. As if the truth weren't problematic enough already, Pavic has even produced his lexicon in "male" and "female" versions differing by only a few (highly significant!) words. This congeries will delight readers of Borges and Calvino, although libraries will need to buy both editions to satisfy them.Grove Koger, Boise P.L., Id.
Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 354 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; 1st Vintage international ed., Female ed edition (October 28, 1989)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067972754X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679727545
  • Product Dimensions: 4.9 x 0.9 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (49 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #890,854 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By J. Angus Macdonald on July 31, 2000
Format: Paperback
I saw this book in a store and saw that there were two editions. This intrigued me -- why "Male" & "Female". It was only several years later on the Internet that I was finally able to find the differing sections -- and different they are, although not necessary for the enjoyment of the book. Choose either edition; you will find the same pleasure.
The Khazars were a real people, holding wide areas of modern-day Russian. They did convert, eventually to Judaism, although you would never learn this from Pavic in particular. No, Pavic is not worried about the reality of the Khazars, but in the melding of cultures of the Balkans, the state of Man and God and their relationships to each other, and odd connections that a literate reader makes between multiple books.
This is not a book with a plot. This is not a book with a single or simple way to read it. I believe that I have read the whole book twice, but they only way I could say that for certain would to be like Hansel and Gretzel and leave marks on the pages that I have actually finished. Like swimming through a dictionary or encyclopedia, this book invites you to read sections in no particular order, or, more realistically, in the order YOU see fit to choose.
The three sections (Christina, Muslem, Jewish) are seperated, yet intermingled due to cross references (many of them contradictory). They are colour-coded, yet this only provides one level of deliniation. Each section is set up like an encyclopedia in its own right. The unifying figure of Princess Ateh is sure to intrigue any sagacious reader; the whimsical nature of the book may seem superficial at first, but you will be drawn deeper into the mystery of "What is this all about?
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Format: Paperback
This book was written by a serbian professor of literature, but might have been written by a former argentinian librarian: Jorge Luis Borges. Both the authors share a love for combinatorics, puzzling coincindences, catalogues, and bizzarre stories. Their stile is rational and dramatic at the same time, like the facade of a baroque church. Also, this book was published in 1986, the year of Borges' death, and is maybe the epitaph that Borges would have liked.
This is a book about the truth. The king of a mysterious people (the Khazars) summons three sages (a christian, a muslim and a jew), because he wants to convert to the true god. Centuries later, three literati write their own accounts of that conversion (each one is different). And this century, three researcher investigate again on what happened.
Finally, there is not a single truth. The book is organized as a dictionary, or better, three dictionaries (one for each religion). Every word inspires a different story and explanation, but all are filled with magic events and mysterious characters. The reader is the ultimate investigator -- and creator -- of the Khazar empire. It's up to him to discover the truth.
A final (and personal) note. This "dictionary" may seem an extremely sophisticated literary game, similar to those of Calvino and Perec. This is is true, but there is more. When the book was out, the civil war (apparently motivated by secular religious intolerance) had not begun yet. To me, this book seems also a passionate attempt to show how difficult is to attain the truth, and an invitation to tolerance.
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Format: Paperback
This book has taken me years to read, not because it reads badly, or because it lacks hooks, au contraire, the problem is that there is so much to take in, such richness, that I spend my time re-reading and cross-reading all the time.

The book is basically a dictionary of the imaginary Khazar people (this one happens to be the male version, the female version differs in only one word, but THAT makes all the difference), you read it as you would any other dictionary, you pick and entry and you read, that entry is also filled with cross references to other entries, where pertinent. It is at that point that the fun begins. By navigating in seemingly random fashion, a world begins to emerge, one as mystical and strange as it is real and solid.

Pavic has an unusual command of the absurdity of meaning; his juxtaposition of the normal with the bizarre as if there was nothing to it makes reading him exciting, new. The book will probably appeal to the historian inside us, as well as to the meddler, the gossiper and the prude in us. That juxtaposition creates a desire to know 'what next then?'

We meet princesses with deadly eyelids, slow mirrors and fast mirrors, poisonous books and killer winks...

Read it, but you will never be done with it!
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Format: Paperback
Are you ready for this ? Do you want a novel with a plot, tangible characters, and the usual narrative style ? OK, forget this book. You are flying over an unknown land, maybe New Guinea, below all is steep mountain and impenetrable jungle. It's a land sparsely inhabited by utterly different people. You fly through some clouds, get lost. Now how will you navigate ? It's all so beautiful, but where are you going? You look down and in the immortal words of Bob Dylan, "you know something's happenin', but you don't know what it is.." Yes, you are definitely reading DICTIONARY OF THE KHAZARS, a beautiful, strange book, redolant with poetry, myth, fantasy, legend, a murder case, dreams, scraps of history, and a political allegory about former Yugoslavia. Pavic has a 17th century fresco painter who is also the Devil say, "Why shouldn't someone create a dictionary of words that make up one book and let the reader himself assemble the words into a whole ?" Pavic has come close to that. The words dazzle. In what other book can you find an egg that holds one day of life, a Thursday or Friday ? Where else do you read about a man with ears so pointed that he could slice a piece of bread with them, about parrot poems, eleven-fingered lute players, or inheritance according to the color of one's beard ? When I read that "it was so quiet in the inn that the hair of the dreamer could be heard splitting somewhere in the dark" I knew that I could not give this novel less than four stars.
The Khazars were a Turkic people living on the Ukrainian steppes and between the Black and Caspian Seas.
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