The Electronic Labyrinth

Dictionary of the Khazars

Milorad Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars was translated from the Serbo-Croatian and first published in English in 1988. It discards the traditional machinery of the novel in favour of an elaborately-conceived dictionary format that reflects critically and playfully on the possibilities of The Book.

The text concerns a real historical enigma, the conversion and subsequent disappearance of the Khazar empire. The Khazars were a warlike and nomadic tribe that settled between the Caspian and Black Seas sometime in the seventh century CE. Their once-powerful empire, however, collapsed following their leader's decision to have one of his dreams interpreted by three different scholars, one Jewish, one Christian and the other Moslem. While it is not known which of these three provided the most satisfactory interpretation, the Khazars apparently converted to the faith of the winning interpreter and shortly thereafter they were wiped out by a Russian Prince.

Only the scantiest traces of the Khazar people have survived but, in Pavic's fanciful exegesis, the mystery of the "Khazar Polemic" was revived in the seventeenth century and a dictionary of the dictionaries of the Khazar empire was published in 1691 as the Lexicon Corsi. The entire first edition, however, was destroyed, though one, printed with poison ink, took more than a few of its readers with it. Dictionary of the Khazars purports to be a reconstruction of this lost dictionary about a lost empire. This central conceit of the text effectively emphasizes the distance, the ineluctable gap between writing and that which it seeks to represent, the gap which is the very space of textuality and representation itself. It is only in the space between the thing and that which represents the thing that art lives and breathes. Pavic's text thus orbits around an absent centre, spinning new trajectories from its radically decentred form.

The book is structured like a dictionary, with discrete entries on different people and subjects relating to the Khazar Polemic arranged in alphabetical order. There is not, however, just one dictionary, but three, one for each of the major religions which had a stake in the interpretation of the dream which anticipated the end of the empire. Many of the terms are repeated in each of the three dictionaries, but the content of the entries varies according to the religious context. Various key terms are coded with coloured icons, a cross, a star and a crescent moon, to aid in cross-referencing, a technique which has obvious corollaries with the colour-coded anchors of hyperbooks. The book can thus be read in any number of ways, as Pavic indicates in his "Preliminary Notes." Each section can be read separately in a linear fashion. Conversely the reader might consult the text randomly, as one might leaf through a dictionary, or proceed diagonally, following one term from section to another to gauge its different transmutations.

Pavic's conceit, for all its playful ingenuity, is also a performative critique of the passivity engendered by the traditional readerly text. He writes:

No chronology will be observed here, nor is one necessary. Hence each reader will put together the book for himself, as in a game of dominoes or cards, and, as with a mirror, he will get out of this dictionary as much as he puts into it, for you [...] cannot get more out of the truth than what you put into it. (13)

No discussion of the Dictionary of the Khazars would be complete without mentioning that the book also comes in two distinct editions, a male and a female. Only seventeen lines are different, but these come during a crucial letter in The Yellow (or Hebrew) Book, and the difference does inflect the narrative, adding the issue of gender to its critical meditation on the place of the reader in the practice of writing.

© 1993-2000 Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar.
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