on July 31, 2000
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?"
Prepare to lose yourself in a magical world of words and inter-relations. I have noted that previous reviewers have compared the writing to Marquez and Calvino -- this is not far off the mark, especially if one could only spin the two together.
on October 2, 1997
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.
on February 24, 2006
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!
on February 22, 2001
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. They disappeared close to a thousand years ago, but not before their khan converted to Judaism, leading Arthur Koestler to write "The Thirteenth Tribe", in which he claimed Russian and East European Jews were all descendants of the Khazars. The conversion was effected by means of a debate between three scholars invited by the khan, a Christian, a Muslim, and a Jew. With this nugget of history, Pavic creates a fantasy, divided into three books, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish, in which characters, institutions, books, and events are treated as in some fabulous encyclopedia. Slowly, with some concentration, being constantly diverted by dreams, weird tales, and witty asides, you see the connections appearing. The number three (as in the 3 religions) is repeated three times---three characters who were the original debaters, three characters who converged around a battle and manuscript in 1689, and again in Istanbul in 1982. You don't have to read this all in order---you can start anywhere---but my advice definitely is to finish.
Surrealistic in the extreme, DICTIONARY OF THE KHAZARS is like a Dali painting or maybe a Fellini movie. If you like those, you will find the novel attractive. It would help to know something about Yugoslavia between 1945 and 1991. Though this political factor is there, mainly alluding, in ironic observations, to the situation of the Serbs, it is far from omnipresent. This is a first novel about life by a highly original poet. It may be confusing sometimes, but it is never dull. A moth may see a white wall as the whole sky. Or maybe not. But you can certainly find the whole human condition in this novel. Try it, you may be glad you did.
on August 24, 2005
Honestly, I am not certain what to write about Pavic's "Dictionary of the Khazars." This is not because I did not enjoy it-- I enjoyed it hugely-- but because I am not certain there is anything else it can be compared to. Unlike his other works, which are certainly amiable enough fiction, this book is inspired, and totally unique.
Taking the form of a dictionary, it is completely nonlinear and untraditional, essentially a hypertext novel printed on paper. To make things a bit more interesting, the dictionary is actually three separate dictionaries, each 'composed' by a different character, and 'redacted' by a fourth. One reading cannot suffice to comprehend and appreciate the book, one really must read it at least twice: once to try and figure out who the players are and what the hell is happening; and again to go back and forth, following the tangled threads of characters and ideas to appreciate the quality of the story's craft.
The book, unsurprisingly, deals with various people's obsession with the story of the Khazars. I found this delightful, as I have always been fascinated with the story myself, and especially considering it seems few have even heard the tale today. There really were Khazars: they were a Russo-Slavic people, living (as Pavic duly assures us) near to the Black Sea, just north of the Byzantine Empire. At an indeterminate time, but likely around 700 CE, their king decided to change his religion, and requested a disputation (a religious debate) be held for him by representatives of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, so he could pick the proper path. He chose Judaism, and the entire nation converted, becoming, for the rest of their existence, the only sovreign Jewish nation in the world from the Roman expulsion of Jews from Judea in 200 to the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. The Khazars were conquered and dispersed sometime around the 10th century or so, and perhaps might have passed out of history (save for the most curious of esoteric legend collectors) had the Khazari disputation not been used as the literary framing of Rabbi Judah HaLevi's medieval philosophy of Judaism, entitled "Kuzari" (the Hebraicization of 'Khazars').
Pavic starts at this juicy tidbit of historia obscura-- already more than a bit surreal to begin with-- takes it, and runs. The Khazars in his book are an enchanting fusion of excellently-researched fact (or however close to fact the actual legends of the Khazars may be) and Pavic's own strange creations, such as their being 'dream hunters' and treasuring numerous different varieties of salt.
The three sections of the dictionary are purportedly compiled in late medieval or early Renaissance times by a Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim, respectively, with the redaction being modern and secular. The helpful device of the book is that dictionary entries which are found in multiple sections (yes, some are only found in one section or another-- read carefully) are marked by a cross, and/or a Star of David, and/or a crescent.
What amazes me most about Pavic's work here is how meticulously detailed and well-researched it is. The factual details he uses are scrupulously correct, and the invented details stunningly crafted, to the point where unless one happens to be quite well-acquainted with the Khazars and the history of the spread of religion in the relevant times and places, one will be hard put to know what springs from history and what from the mind of Pavic. The characters also are wonderfully bizarre, with that strikingly surreal colorfulness so frequently encountered in historical figures from the Russo-Slavic areas.
Obviously, if you are looking for a serious work about the historical Khazars and their Jewish kingdom of Khazaria, this is not that book. But if you're looking for a truly engrossing read, unlike anything else you've ever read, with which to delightfully while away hours on a trip or a dull evening or even a nice morning, this is a must. A tremendous amount of fun, a joy to own (you will come back to it, and it will not disappoint), and-- I guarantee-- not something you will see anywhere else.
on October 31, 2001
Milorad Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars is a very odd book. It's written more like an encyclopaedia than a dictionary, and more like a book of mythology/folklore than an encyclopaedia.
Perhaps the book can be best described as the ultimate bathroom reading for post-modernists. The book is divided into three parts: Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. The entries are generally short, and can be read in any order. As you read, you'll find crossovers, similarities, and outright contradictions to perplex and tease your mind. The time periods covered jump from the distant past to the present, with murders, accidental deaths, personification of devils, and dream-hunting.
Some parts I found rather dry, but on the whole, the book is filled with moments where I would put the book down to contemplate a sentence. The Dictionary of the Khazars is full of nice, chewy ideas and insights, and reads a bit like a more user-friendly Umberto Eco.
on May 16, 1999
This book simultaneously tells several totally distinct estories, but which are all the same. It is incredibly charming, I read it twice, some years ago, and the excerpts that I wrote may be slightly different on the book due to this!
The first way to read this book is as a tale of three excludent versions of the conversion of a people to the true Religion: Judaism, Christianity and Islamism. Three wise men were convoked by the Khazars King to explain a dream. Afterwards each claims to have won the debate, although even ignoring the names of their opponents. It seems to me a very proper symbol of the European or even the World History: each one describing events totally blind to other peoples versions.
The Khazars, before converting, had a Religion based on Dreams. Afterwards they were destroyed by the Kievan Russians, "so suddenly that the shadows of their palaces had no time to disappear together with the buildings, and still remain there". "Only some parrots of the Black Sea still remember their language."
It is also a fantastically poetic book, with many moving passages. It relates the fight of Man to recreate a New Man, against the concerted alliance of the devils of the three religions. It tells an incredible maze of personal estories: the powerful princess Ateh, an european noble fighting on the turkish side, a devil who painted religious icons, and so forth.
In conclusion, it tells the estory of Man alone trying to create its own Future, but fighting against poerful devils and the omnipresent God, whoever He is. In this way it remembers me a fantastic brazilian romance "The Devil pay on the Backlands (Grande Sertao: Veredas)" of Joao Guimaraes Rosa: Is there a Devil or is everything of our own responsability? That may be a good question to ask ourselves.
on April 18, 2006
This book is a rare gem. Milorad Pavic is known for his unqiue formats and incredible imagery, and "DotK" is certainly no exception. The 3 sub-books (each an individual dictionary) provide alternate perspectives about entries that serve to flesh out the story, which centers around what is referred to as the "Khazar Polemic"; a debate set forth by the Khazar Khaghan to determine which of the three major religions to adopt: Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.
This little tome is filled with beautiful, bizarre word pictures that shouldn't be passed up. As someone has already remarked, he very much is the Salvadore Dale of literature. Buy this book and read it at least twice; once to get the story and again to appreciate the phenomenal minutia. All of his characters are so fantastical and colorful that it will take more than a cursory glance to absorb the feast Pavic has set before us. Belly up and dive in, it's great.
This is also a perfect spring board to launch into future Pavic novels.
on September 4, 1998
Although this novel comes in two versions -- male and female -- this is just a Pavician joke and it's not necessary to hunt the single altered paragraph which is the "key" to the story. At the end of the book, Pavic playfully suggests that male and female readers should meet up to exchange the missing paragraph -- he is perhaps the first meta-fictional matchmaker in literary history! Anyway, this is an absolutely brilliant novel, and Pavic deserves to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. It's a genuine literary event when he publishes a new novel, and he is the only author to bestride the 20th century like a genuine colossus -- one foot in the 19th century, standing with Tolstoy, Gogol, Multatuli, Alas, Balzac, and the other foot in the 21st century, among writers still unborn.
on May 22, 2002
This is a bizarre and beautiful book, and perhaps due to my limited attention span I found its value more in the poetry of its language than its attempts at being a novel. Some of the passages, such as the one describing Man's relationship to God as similar to that of the man and the moth, are breathtakingly wonderful. As a writer myself, I have been endlessly inspired by his new ideas in both language and structure. If you're looking for straightforward magical realism I would suggest reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Milan Kundera first, but if you wish to delve deeper into the odd tunnels of human thought (I often wonder how Pavic thought of some of his stories-within-stories)then this "lexical novel" is highly recommended.