A Novel Dictionary

Dictionary of the Khazars

By Milorad Pavic

New York: Alfred A. Knopf

$19.95

ACCORDING to my Webster's dictionary, the Serbo-Croatian language is a marriage of two immiscible languages, Serbian and Croatian, which still retain individual identities in the form of separate alphabets. Serbian words are written in the Cyrillic alphabet; Croatian words, in the Roman. Milorad Pavic, who is a Yugoslav poet, must be sensitive to this split down the middle of his language. He has written a novel whose conceit is that it is a dictionary of three immiscible languages, with three distinct alphabets, corresponding to the three major religions that have shaped the Western world: Greek (Christian), Arabic (Islam) and Hebrew (Judaism).

These three sections of the Dictionary of the Khazars contain all surviving information on a fourth language and culture, the language and culture of the Khazars. A fictional tribe created by Pavic, the Khazars flourished in Asia Minor until around the eighth century A.D., when, upon conversion to one of the three major religions, their nation and culture disappeared from the face of the earth. In Pavic's hands, the plight of the Khazars in the eighth century becomes a parable for the Middle East of today.

Don't be frightened off by the number of languages. Pavic composed his novell-as-dictionary in a single language, Serbo-Croatian, and Christina Pribicevic-Zoric has translated the novel into lucid English. The novel, however, is divided into three separate dictionaries, Greek, Arabic and Hebrew, called the Red Book, the Green Book and the Yellow Book. To help orient the reader, Knopf's bookmakers have designed small icons, in the appropriate colors, that appear in the upper outside corner of nearly every page.

Aside from the preliminary notes, with which the reader should begin, and the appendices and closing notes, with which the reader should conclude, the Dictionary, like any dictionary, has no fixed sequence. Most entries take the form of stories or legends, and individuals and topics that appear elsewhere in the dictionary are cross-referenced, both from one entry to another, by a system of coded signs, and in the index at the rear of the book.

But deciding the sequence of the entries is not the only control that the reader may exercise. If you hike over to the bookstore, you will discover that the first choice to make is which gender edition you would like to read. Knopf has published two versions: male and female. The difference between the editions is not great--only 17 lines (and I promise not to reveal which 17)--but, as the cover and title page warn, this one paragraph is crucially different.

PAVIC has chosen to write under an enormous number of self-imposed constraints. He even boasts in the subtitle that he has written a novel "in 100,000 words," and although I doubt that the translator has followed Pavic's linguistic game that strictly, I do not doubt that Pavic himself wrote exactly 100,000 words in the Serbo-Croat. My rough estimation of the English edition comes to 99,495.

The book requires imaginative effort, and it alternately challenges and intimidates its would-be readers. "The reader capable of deciphering the hidden meaning of a book from the order of its entries has long since vanished from the face of the earth," Pavic notes disdainfully, but I suspect that readers spurned in this eloquent and romantic language will pursue Pavic's meaning with great energy, much as a rejected but dogged suitor would pursue an elusive beloved. I also suspect that Pavic understands this psychology.

Exactly what sort of meaning the reader ought to pursue is itself a question. There are many mysteries for the reader to puzzle over. There are, for example, murders to solve and dreams to interpret.

There is the question of what became of the Khazar language, which began to die out after the Khazars converted from their religion, and which the princess Ateh taught to a flock of parrots.

There are conflicting historical reports. Each dictionary claims that the Khazars converted to its faith, Christian, Islamic or Jewish, and fails to mention the names of the representatives of the other two faiths who also attempted to persuade the Khazars.

And there is an enormous Borgesian puzzle of hunting the Khazar dictionary that the reader thought he was holding, because the reader will quickly discover that he does not hold the Khazar dictionary itself, but only a collection of its fragments, among them bits of the 1691 edition of Joannes Daubmannus (rumored to survive; the reader could search for the last extant copy, printed in a poisonous ink).

The reader discovers that he does not hold a book, but an attempt to reclaim a book that has been lost.

MEANWHILE the reader is still hunting for those 17 differing lines. Every mention of male and female complements leaps off the page, because maybe, the reader hopes, he has found the crucial paragraph. And Pavic provides many such mentions, because he is fascinated by the idea that every text has a male and female half. Always a text is incomplete without at least two ways of reading it. Perhaps more than two because according to one source Khazar nouns had seven genders.

The Borgesian game of hunting a lost text may remind readers of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, where monks searched for the second part of Aristotle's Poetics, and it would not be a bad comparison. Like Eco, Pavic loves to play games with the textuality of the text--the Dictionary is more toy than book--and, like Eco, Pavic has profound doubts about the power of language to communicate.

The parrots who chatter the beautiful poetry of Princess Ateh, for example, continue to resurface centuries after the meaning of the Khazar language has been forgotten. Nonetheless, those who hear the parrots claim that the poetry has moved them. This might be a symbol of language communicating despite enormous gaps, or it might be a symbol of language only seeming to communicate, a delusion that the gaps belie.

A literary project with this many rules and games could easily become sterile and precious. Fortunately, Pavic's imagination is equal to the task. He peoples his history of the history of the Khazars with vampires, religious ascetics, devils, golems, star-crossed lovers and a Turkish pasha who makes love only to the dying. Exotic details or metaphors not only impart a flavor of strangeness to the book, but also send a reader scurrying back and forth through the pages, trying to remember where he has come across a hand with two thumbs, a grave shaped like a goat or a fruit that resembles a live fish.

THESE details are often the only clue available to establish an identity, and together the details give the book a sort of magic realism. The details begin to separate themselves from the more powerful cultures that have transcribed them; the Khazar world acquires a fantastic character that distinguishes it from the Jewish, Moslem and Christian voices through which it must speak.

In 1982, at a conference in Constantinople on "The Cultures of the Black Sea Shores in the Middle Ages," Pavic reveals, several scholars of the Khazar question attempted to pool their separated understandings of the Khazars. These scholars are the last heroes of the Dictionary, and, like their medieval predecessors, their desire to understand the Khazars leads them across cultural boundaries. The scholars' attempt to bring different traditions together is relevant to the 20th century Middle East. As Pavic's Dictionary chronicles the assimilation of the Khazars and their confrontations with other cultures, Pavic seems to plead for unity in the Middle East without homogenization.

In form alone, The Dictionary of the Khazars is revolutionary. It entertains the reader while forcing him to concentrate intensely. In addition, Pavic tells an allegory about the contradictions in language. His Khazars, who aspired to speak their own language with a foreign accent and who deliberately chose translators who made mistakes in the Khazar language, are painfully aware of the limits and possibilities of communication across boundaries of culture, gender, time and religion.

Daubmannus' 1691 warning to stay away from the Dictionary should be ignored. Still, the cautious reader might want to read the book in small increments, on the off chance that he should hold the poisoned copy, where the reader dies at the ninth page.