Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel by Milorad Pavić, translated by Christina Pribićević-Zorić

This entry is part 37 of 37 in the series 2022 Reads

As always, I’m posting this weeks and weeks after I read it. Well, weeks, anyway. (I read this in August.)


The Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel is a very strange book. I guess I’d sum it up as dueling untrustworthy historical accounts by three sources, one from each of the religions of the book, about the Khazar people. The idea is that the accounts were compiled hundreds of years after whatever actually happened with the Khazars, and those compiled accounts have been translated and edited by a modern scholar. So you have a bunch of points of view, and you have a semi-encyclopedic approach. Of course, all of this immediately calls to mind what Edward Said wrote about novels having these same properties in Culture and Imperialism (1993):

Of all the major literary forms, the novel is the most recent, its emergence the most datable, its occurrence the most Western, its normative pattern of social authority the most structured; imperialism and the novel, fortified each other to such a degree that it is impossible, I would argue, to read one without in some way dealing with the other….Nor is this all. The novel is an incorporative, quasi-encyclopedic cultural form. Packed into it are both a highly regulated plot mechanism and an entire system of social reference that depends on the existing institutions of bourgeois society, their authority and power. (71)

Dictionary of the Khazars, of course, predates Said’s comment above, but the Said feels like it offers some contrasting insight into the text anyway: Dictionary of the Khazars is definitely incorporative and quasi-encyclopedic. But Said’s point was that these features exist in realist fiction, implicitly, because realist novels exist in part in service of in the service of empires. Yet the Dictionary is not really realist at all—the Khazars of the book have little to do with the actual Khazar people of history in our world, the social references that do exist in the book are both occulted and outright occult (as in, supernatural and mystical, and also in the sense that they present a kind of magical puzzle for the reader), and although there is to some degree a plot, it is not direct but rather shattered and distributed through the text, working through echoes.   

Who were these fictional Khazars of the Dictionary? That depends on what you do with the dictionary entries, I suppose: some items and concepts get a distinct entry in each “dictionary” and some only get covered in one or two of the accounts. “Dictionary” seems like a misnomer here: they’re more like small, bewildering encyclopedias, each with contradictory contents and explicit interconnections, parts of them possibly reconstructed from the contents of long-dead dreamers, other parts repeating apocryphal stories and mythic accounts of prehistory, and all of them contesting the histories set out by the others. 

Well, maybe I should say partially contradicting one another: often there’s a thread of recurrence between accounts, in the way one would get if there were some objective facts that got distorted in each account because everyones playing a game of telephone. In some ways, the book seems to be about that: the way accounts contradict and none of them really line up with the facts or the actual truth, and of course how ideology and identity almost inevitably distort the narratives that develop about things, people, history, and power. There are also entries that only occur in one of the three “dictionaries.” 

The book is in a few ways a game: how does one go about reading it? Certainly not cover to cover, straight through: there are cross-references between the various compiled dictionaries, and by flipping between corresponding entries, you can sort of pick up on what echoes between the accounts, and get a sense of the hazily-visible figures and events in the narrative. (There are even two separate, slightly different editions of the book out there, so picking which one to buy and read is, in a way, part of the game.) It’s also a very fantastical book, with dream-hunters and magic and supernatural events and mythic or fairytalesque narratives embedded in it. A lot of North American readers seem to have used the term “magical realism” to describe that, though really there’s an Eastern European traditional of fantastical writing that’s more germane here, I think. 

At the core of the history being retold is the question of whether the Khazars—a now-disappeared people from whom no records survive—converted to Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, a decision apparently made based on what representatives of each faith offered as interpretations of a perplexing dream their ruler had one night. Another choice the reader must make is which edition of the book one reads, for there are two: a “male” and a female” edition. The difference is extremely minimal, apparently only involving a single paragraph. (It’s easily found online.) This is, in other words, far from Choose Your Own Adventure, but it definitely does engage the reader in collaboration with the author in ways that we don’t often see in fiction for adults. In fact, the author comments metafictionally on this a few times. The most noticeable one is in the account of a monk named Nikon Sevast, who was also possibly Satan living in a human guise, and who—as the result of a miracle involving an angel—became a profoundly gifted painter whose work stuck in the minds of all who saw it. Sevast commented: 

“It is not I who mixed the colors but your own vision… I only place them next to one another on the wall in their natural state; it is the observer who mixes the colors in his own eye, like porridge. Therein lies the secret. The better the porridge, the better the painting, but you cannot make good porridge from bad buckwheat. Therefore, faith in seeing, listening, and reading is more important than faith in painting, singing, or writing.”

(…)

“I work with something like a dictionary of colors… and from it the observer composes sentences and books, in other words, images. You could do the same with writing. Why shouldn’t someone create a dictionary of words that make up one booko and let the reader himself assemble the words into a whole?”

This character is, in fact, a scribe working for the compiler of the Dictionary of the Khazars. Therefore it’s implied that he actually went out and did this in the form of the Dictionary of the Khazars itself, too. So, here we have a character who’s a stand in for Pavić, who might also be Satan, who is almost certainly a couple of other Satanic characters in other dictionarties, who is a failed painter who set out to use the secret technique of his visual art in writing. It’s kind of hall-of-mirrors level metafictional reflection, but dizzying as it is, this is something that—despite being printed on pages 96 and 97 of this book—I didn’t even read until well after reading two-thirds of the text: I happened to “put the book together” that particular way. The fact that the author managed that—to put something simultaneously early in the book, but also late in at least some readers’ experiences—is especially amusing to me. As I say, it does have a kind of pick-a-path feel to it, though of course you’re not connecting a storyline so much as conflicting and incompatible assertions, as well as whatever you think they might metaphorize (if anything). 

I get the sense that this different feel is part of why Dictionary of the Khazars was so loudly celebrated when English readers first got access to it. The last few sections of the book—a pair of appendices—do sort of tie a ribbon onto the text. Sort of, because what they do is actually to signal very odd things about figures encountered earlier in the text, andn there’s a strange Poundian sense of resonating occult forces at work throughout history, though in Pavić’s case the forces seem to be literal, supernatural entities who have continued to exist in changing forms, or perhaps who have been reborn into thw world. For all that, the Appendices don’t tie things up neatly with a bow: even once you see the last few missing pieces of the puzzle, you’re still left with the question of what the composite picture means, and ultimately it feels open-ended enough that readers will come up with different feelings about that question, different fragments of answers to it, and different memories of what the question is even about. It’s a book that I suspect would reward rereading, though it’s also a book that feels as if it wants to be read in bits, in dribs and drabs, set aside for a few days and then picked up and read, a few entries at a time. It’s certainly a book that demands you have a relationship with it. If I had infinite time and energy, I could see myself rereading it and drawing up a map of the book, similar to those maps of the timelines for Shane Carruth’s movie Primer. I’m not sure I’d get more out of the book that way, but since the book is, on some level, a game about connecting the dots, this feels like it’d be engaging it more fully than I am just having read it as a diversion. Still… I’m passing it on to a friend, and don’t have the time and energy, so, well, there it is.  

The book—I hesitate to call it a novel, though it calls itself one—was definitely Pavić’s biggest hit outside of his homeland, and that meant that more of his work also got translated. It is clearly in some way about what Yugoslavia was like before the country fell apart, and also about the inherent tensions and complexity of a polyglot, diverse culture. (Pavić confirmed this in interviews, too.) Whether he was merely observing that truth is more overtly fluid and more of a moving target in diverse cultures, or was suggesting the center cannot hold to any diversity if the basic facts of reality cannot be agreed upon, I’m not sure.   

For those interested in RPGs, it’s noteworthy that the novel also inspired several games/game supplements. In fact, I first heard of the novel in Greg Stolze’s discussion of The Spherewalker Sourcebook, a supplement for the first edition of the Everway RPG that he wrote in the same dictionary format. (Stolze mentions on his website that the novel also inspired a different RPG project, as well, a Legend of the Five Rings product titled City of Lies.)1 I commented to a friend the other day that it was from Stolze that I first heard of Dictionary of the Khazars, but now I’m not so sure: it may actually have been in the context of that other game it inspired, Neel Krishnaswami’s Lexicon. (The original posting of the game rules is long gone, so here’s a backup someone posted elsewhere.) I learned about Lexicon from the Paranoia-themed Toothpaste Disaster game hosted by Allen Varney, and it’s possible I followed up to check out these rules—and saw mention of Dictionary of the Khazars—prior to seeing Stolze’s mention. 

There’s one last thing that gives me pause here—I don’t find much to support it, but it is maybe worth mentioning: information about Pavić is pretty thin on the ground online, at least today, but I found claims on an old Metafilter discussion that Milorad Pavić’s interest in Serbian national identity may have had an ugly side. (Caveat emptor: those claims are made by one individual, who claims it was common knowledge in Serbia, but this is the internet, so who knows whether that’s true. I’d expect a little more written about it by now if it were, but maybe Pavić’s just too obscure for the discussion to happen now.) I was unaware of these claims before reading the book—I only stumbled onto them after finishing it and looking around to see how other people had responded to the book—and don’t know what to make of them now. 

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  1. (I happen to have gotten a copy of the Spherewalker Sourcebook, which is sort of a unicorn in the world of RPG books. My copy is a bit tattered, but mostly in good shape, and someone happened to be selling it online for $20 when I happened to look. That’s a fifth of the next-lowest price I’d ever seen online, so I got it immediately, but then put it on the shelf: I wanted to wait to read it until after reading the Pavić novel. I guess now I have no excuse to put off reading it!

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