(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Aristotle, the world’s first literary critic, observed in his POETICS that successful dramatic situations should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Most novelists accept this dictum unquestioningly, and strive to create logical, “airtight” plots. In recent years, however, certain writers have experimented with more open-ended forms, looking for ways to engage the reader in structural decision-making. The textbook example of this participatory mode is Julio Cortazar’s novel HOPSCOTCH, the chapters of which can be read in several equally valid sequences. Yugoslavian poet Milorad Pavic’s first novel, DICTIONARY OF THE KHAZARS, pays homage to Cortazar by inviting the reader to skip from chapter to chapter in whatever order he pleases.

Pavic’s structural conceit is to present his novel in the form of a dictionary, filled with short topical entries on a long-forgotten people known as the Khazars, who settled between the Black and Caspian seas around the seventh century A.D. Students of contemporary literature will recognize the influence of another modern master--Jorge Luis Borges--in Pavic’s highly detailed bibliographic fantasy. The dictionary is purportedly a translation of the only surviving copy of a book written in the seventeenth century, when Khazar scholarship was in vogue. The compiler of the dictionary (who learned the lost language of the Khazars from parrots) divided his work into three separate sections, consisting of Jewish, Christian,...

(The entire section is 444 words.)

Dictionary of the Khazars

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

The Khazars dominated the region between the Black and Caspian Seas between the seventh and tenth centuries, after which their fate becomes hard to trace. Sometime in the eighth or ninth century the Khazars converted to either Christianity, Islam, or Judaism—which one is not known—and then declined rapidly. In Milorad Pavi’s telling, the Khazar ruler—the kaghan—had a dream and enlisted “a dervish, a rabbi, and a monk” to explain it. The ensuing debate over religion forms the “Khazar polemic,” which still inspires scholarly controversy. This much of Pavi’s tale is historical, as are the sketches of Cyril, his brother Methodius, and Judah Halevi. The seventeenth century story and its sequel in 1982 are both fantastic fictions.

Presented as a “reconstruction of the original 1691 Daubmannus edition (destroyed in 1692), including its most recent revisions,” Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel in 100,000 Words is divided into three parts: “The Red Book,” giving Christian sources on the Khazar question, “The Green Book” of Islamic sources, and “The Yellow Book” of Hebrew sources. These books constitute the bulk of the novel, and they are enclosed by a bogus scholarly apparatus—“Preliminary Notes” and two appendices—followed by a metafictional musing, “On the Usefulness of This Dictionary,” and “List of Entries.” It is all satisfyingly contrived and playful.

As the reader proceeds through Dictionary of the Khazars, reading each entry, he will reconstruct the stories around a series of triads. The main characters in each book have their counterparts in each of the other books. Thus, each book has a participant in the Khazar polemic (Cyril the Christian, Ibn Kora the Muslim, and Isaac Sangari the Jew), a chronicler (Methodius, Al-Bakri, and Judah Halevi), a seventeenth century student of the polemic (Avram Brankovich, Yusuf Masudi, and Samuel Cohen), a twentieth century scholar (Isailo Suk, Abu Kabir Muawia, Dorothea Schultz), and a devil from the hell of each religion (Nikon Sevast, Yabir Ibn Akshany, and Ephrosinia Lukarevich).

The complicated fate shared by Brankovich, Masudi, and Cohen dominates much of the book. Brankovich is an Austrian diplomat in Constantinople who practices his military skills and becomes absorbed in the story of the Khazars. The demonic Sevast is one of Brankovich’s two scribes, and it is he who tells Brankovich’s story. At one point, Brankovich consults a fortune-teller and is told, “You are dreaming of a man with a mustache, one half of which is gray. Young, with red eyes and glass fingernails, he is heading for Constantinople, and soon the two of you will meet. . . .”

The man with a mustache is Cohen, a Dubrovnik Jew, whose story is told in “The Yellow Book.” Cohen shares with Brankovich the fate that each dreams the other’s life and each is drawn to the other by an interest in the Khazar sources. Brankovich brings eight camel-loads of books to Constantinople to support his study of the Khazars, and is learning Hebrew to master the sources in that language. Sevast explains Brankovich’s obsession:He is trying to cure himself of the dream that holds him captive. The Kuros of his dreams [Cohen] is also interested in the Khazar question, and Kyr Avram [Brankovich] knows this better than we do. The one and only way for Kyr Avram to free himself from his dream is to find this stranger, and only through the Khazar documents will he find him, because they are the only trail leading to him.

When Cohen is banished from Dubrovnik in 1689, he travels with the Turkish Sabljak Pasha to the Danube, where the pasha’s forces encounter the Austrians and Brankovich. Cohen comes upon the sleeping Brankovich and runs a spear through his chest, but as soon as Brankovich dies, Cohen falls into a fatal coma. Since each dreams the other’s life, with one always awake while the other is asleep, Cohen cannot live without Brankovich to dream him into existence.

The third scholar of the Khazar sources is the Muslim Yusuf Masudi, and his life intersects with Brankovich’s and Cohen’s. Masudi is a dream hunter. The dream hunters were a sect of Khazar priests who “could read other people’s dreams, live and make themselves at home in them, and through the dreams hunt the game that was their prey—a human, an object, or an animal.” The dream hunters were patronized by the Khazar Princess Ateh, and their knowledge was collected in the form of the original Khazar dictionary.

When Masudi, an Anatolian lute-player, learns from an old man that he has inherited the dream hunter’s role, he receives from the old man an Arabic text of the original dictionary and is told, “As soon as you come upon two people who dream of each other, you have reached your goal!” The reason for this lies in “The Tale of Adam Ruhani,” a myth that the old man relates to Masudi and which is paralleled by “A Note on Adam Cadmon” that Cohen reads. The Adam Ruhani narrative describes him as one of the three original angels of the Creation, who fell to tenth place in the angelic hierarchy but keeps trying to climb back to his former position. His fate is Sisyphus-like: He alternates between rising and declining.

The dream hunters draw from people’s dreams bits and pieces of the whole body of Adam Ruhani, incorporating them in the Khazar dictionaries in an effort to put together once more “the enormous body of Adam Ruhani.” If a dream hunter apprehends Adam on one of his ascents toward God, great benefits can ensue from the approach to Truth, but disaster may follow if Adam is in decline. People who dream of each other, such as Cohen and Brankovich, may offer signs to...

(The entire section is 2326 words.)