Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavić

200px-Dictionary_of_the_KhazarsThis is the first book since Infinite Jest which led me to using two bookmarks, and I could have used three. Many books claim to challenge traditional narrative, or traditional methods of reading — pages turned in chronological order, beginning-middle-end, etc. Some are more successful than others and most are gimmicks. On this front Dictionary of the Khazars is a legitimate success. It’s one of those rare books where form trumps story or craft. As the title implies, it is a dictionary (sort of). Three dictionaries.

The Khazars were an (actual) people living in the Caucasus, bridging the Christian and Islamic worlds in the first millennium AD, who later disappeared. The book is three color-coded dictionaries to match the three Abrahamic religions. They attempt to piece together the events that occurred at the Khazar court, shortly before the entire nation’s dissolution; all are writing with the assurance that the Khazars converted to their respective religion based on a scholar/philosopher of their faith presenting the most compelling philosophy and dream interpretation to the Khazar leader (khagan). Some passages repeat across two or three of the dictionaries and others appear in just one. Certain words have symbols — the Christian cross, the Islamic crescent, or the Star of David — to denote which dictionaries a definition appears in. Calling these books a “dictionary” is a bit misleading. There are not many entries. The shortest ones are a page or two long and some of them are 10-20 pages in length. It’s more like a collection of alphabetically arranged short stories than a traditional dictionary.

You can read the book in any order you choose. Front to back, jumping around, 5 pages in one dictionary, 5 pages in the next two and back. I jumped around and I think the book was better for it. The threads are designed to facilitate moving around, and in such a way that you are eased into it. There are three time periods the majority of entries take place in and one of the very first entries in the first (Christian) book is a story about a man who dreams he is another man every time he sleeps… and that man is an entry in the Jewish book (dreaming the life of the first man); by the time you’ve read both entries, you’ve been introduced to several different characters in the 17th century to look up across all three books. Once you get into the hang of this, it’s easy to follow the threads for the story arcs taking place in the 10th and 20th centuries. That said, the final entry in the final book is clearly best read last as it ties together much of what occurs in the rest of the book.

The stories/entries are uneven. The best ones are incredibly weird. Genuinely strange — this isn’t false praise like many so-called “weird” books receive. There’s demons who tie birds to their massive penises to keep them floating out of their way, Dracula impregnating women with killer plants, automatons whose authenticity is tested by whether or not zombies will confuse them for real humans and eat them. There’s not enough of these stories. The worst parts are those written in a faux-academic style, detailing the surviving records of the Khazar court. Fictional history can be done very well, just not by Pavić. Many of the history-book type stories in this book are just boring. And the conclusion, insofar as there is one, is not particularly poignant nor does it bring everything before it together in a satisfying way. This is hardly necessary for a book to succeed, but Dictionary of the Khazars does have a central mystery — what happened at the original Khazar court when the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish scholars came to interpret their khagan’s dreams?

There’s a male and female version of this book where a single paragraph is changed. It’s a weird and ineffectual gimmick. I think the mystery of what’s different about the other version? is far more fascinating than the reality. I read the male version and Alison is reading the female version. I looked at her copy after I finished mine and rolled my eyes at the paragraph in question.

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