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Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel…

Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel in 100,000 Words (Male Edition) (original 1984; edition 1989)

by Milorad Pavic (Author), Christina Pribicevic-Zoric (Translator)

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Title:Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel in 100,000 Words (Male Edition)
Authors:Milorad Pavic (Author)
Other authors:Christina Pribicevic-Zoric (Translator)
Info:Vintage (1989), Edition: Vintage International ed Male ed, 338 pages
Collections:Your library

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Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel in 100,000 Words {Male Edition} by Milorad Pavić (1984)



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A bird foraging for food in the swamps and marshes sinks rapidly if it doesn't move. It has to keep pulling its feet out of the mire to move on, regardless of whether it has caught something or not. And the same applies to us and to our love. We have to move on, we can't stay where we are, because we'll sink.

This is less a novel, than shards of story reduced to a taxonomy. The bird metaphor does reflect on the precariousness of the parsing. Sifting through such, the reader coalesces the data, breathes life into the clay monolith. The activation inspires the author's wrath on forgotten tragedy and erasure. Vengeance is wrecked. Outside of the framing story, which we discover three-quarters of the way through Dictionary, there is a curious silence of intent. We learn of dream hunters and an amalgamation which combines female and masculine, the light and dark and along the way we gather images from cello-fingering and fencing manuals. I would recommend reading the entries which appear in all three sections of the novel first. It won't necessarily elucidate but it yields some fascinating overlap.
( )
  jonfaith | Feb 22, 2019 |

Dictionary of the Khazars - Right on the title page prospective readers are informed there are two, nearly identical, editions of this book – MALE and FEMALE (authors caps). We are also alerted, warned even, that ONE PARAGRAPH (again, author's caps) is critically different in each edition. As both editions are now available in English, Serbian author Milorad Pavić and/or his publisher conclude this mini preamble with these words: “The choice is yours.”

Quizzically quaint in that I see not only one but three choices a reader can make: 1) which edition to read; 2) to search or not to search for that ONE PARAGRAPH; 3) once found or not found, the amount of importance ascribed to said single paragraph (this “lexicon novel” is well over three hundred pages). Additionally, many more choices could unravel depending upon a reader's decisions.

What does all this bring to mind? The children's gamebooks, Choose Your Own Adventure, or, perhaps Jorge Luis Borges’ labyrinths or Umberto Eco’s literary puzzles or Italo Calvino’s direct references to how we read a book? If intrigued, even slightly, please read on. If not, you can stop right here. The choice is yours.

Preceding the reconstructed and revised second edition of The Khazar Dictionary, that is, the Milorad Pavić novel, there are more than a dozen pages of Preliminary Notes. Here’s the very first sentence: “The author assures the reader that he will not have to die if he reads this book, as did the user of the 1691 edition, when The Khazar Dictionary still had its first scribe.” Always encouraging words, especially for a book reviewer like myself who would like to continue reading and reviewing more books after I’m done with this one.

And who were the Khazars, you may well ask? Answer: a powerful people whose kingdom ruled lands at crossroads along the Silk Road between the Caspian Sea and Black Sea from the 7th to 10th century, a people who preached their own faith, a faith that continues to remain unknown to us moderns. Their conversion to one of the Western monotheistic religions -Judaism, Christianity, Islam - lead to the downfall of their empire at the hands of the Russians. The fact we do not know which one of the three religions is a central theme of the Dictionary of the Khazars.

What we do know is the ruler of the Khazars, the kaghan, invited a rabbi and a monk, and a dervish to his palace to compete in a contest to provide the best interpretation of a powerful, significant, fateful dream he had. The kaghan proclaimed that he and his people would convert to the winner's religion. Since no definitive record from the period has survived, in later years, each religion claimed victory. Ah, religion - what else is new?

The Preliminary Notes provide all sorts of remarkable detail, such as eyewitness reports that in the years following the demolition of the Khazar capital at the mouth of the Caspian Sea by the conquering Russians, shadows of the city’s houses held their outlines long after the buildings were destroyed. Leads me to believe, as a consequence of the Khazar defeat, the opium trade along the Silk Road must have been booming.

Also, how one 17th century chronicler explained his own day’s awakened interest in various writings and documents revolving around the competition for that distant kaghan’s kingdom: “Each of us promenades his thought, like a monkey on a leash. When you read, you always have two such monkeys: your own and the one belonging to someone else. Or, even worse, a monkey and a hyena. Now, consider what you will feed them. For the hyena does not eat the same thing as a monkey . . . .”

Say what? Not exactly the quote one would use to encourage young people to develop a love for books and reading. It would be interesting to know what stake the chronicler had in the Khazar debate. Was he himself an jaded reader? Maybe just another disgruntled author who couldn’t find a publisher for his own writing.

And there was funny business aplenty with that first edition of the Dictionary published at the end of the 17th century: two copies survived the Inquisition, one printed with a poisoned dye. Whoever opened the book soon grew numb and the reader would drop dead on the ninth page. At some point, the poisoned copy was destroyed. (Maybe not a bad thing). The other copy was also destroyed, this time by an old man who would tear out one page at a time to dip in his soup so as to skim off the fat. Thus, the second edition was put together, piece by piece, drawing on various sources through times both medieval and modern and lands, near and far and far out.

I’ll conclude my observations on the Preliminary Notes by citing how the author encourages us to read the book in such a way that we can rearrange the parts much like a Rubik's cube and put it together as if playing 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, as is written on one of the pages of this lexicon, you cannot get more out of the truth than what you put into it. After all, this book need never be read in its entirety; one can take half or only a part and stop there, as one often does with dictionaries.”

The bulk of Milorad Pavić’s novel is composed of: The Red Book, The Green Book, The Yellow Book, that is, three dictionaries on the Khazar question compiled by three sources: Christian (Red), Islamic (Green) and Hebrew (Yellow). Contained therein are tales and tales within tales - a maze, a web, a jumble, a literary stew of states of consciousness, deadly alphabets, a princess with multiple faces, human immortality, fast and slow mirrors, inheritances based on the color of one’s beard, bones made of gold, learning the Khazar language from a parrot, a sealed chest of hashish, glass fingernails, dreams of a multicolored moustache, an illness serving as a pair of eyes. And that’s only from the first pages of The Red Book! It gets better. It gets wilder and wilder and wilder.

As by way of example, here are brief notes on the first two entries: Ateh, a 9th century princess, played a decisive role in the conversion of the Khazars. While asleep, the princess protected herself from her enemies by writing a single letter on each of her eyelids. The princess’s star-studded entry covers four glorious pages.

Brankovich Avram of the 17th century was among the authors of the book who could not speak one language for more than a minute at a time. While in conversation, Brankovich switched back and forth from Hungarian to Turkish to Walachian to Khazar and spoke Spanish in his sleep. His entry goes on for more than twenty pages (all in English).

This is a novel for lovers of storytelling, lovers who are willing to open the book as if picking up a Rubik's cube and delighting in each rotation. Who knows, such a lover might reach states of bliss unknown even to Khazar mystics and dreamers. The choice is yours.

Milorad Pavić, 1929-2009 - Serbian novelist, poet and literary historian

"Overall, he became a handsome and educated young man, and only occasionally did he exhibit barely noticeable signs that he was unlike others. For example, on Monday evenings he could take a different day from his future and use it the following morning, in place of Tuesday. When he came to the day he had taken, he would use the skipped Tuesday in its place, thereby adjusting the total. Under these conditions, of course, the connecting seams of the days could not fit together properly, and cracks appeared in time, but this matter only gladdened Petkutin." - Milorad Pavić, Dictionary of the Khazars ( )
  Glenn_Russell | Nov 13, 2018 |
Bᴜᴅᴠᴀ—A town on the Montenegrin coast, pop. 13,000. According to Stephanus of Byzantium, writing in the 6th century CE, Budva was founded by Cadmus, the grandson of Poseidon and first king of Thebes, who had journeyed up the coast in his old age with his wife Harmonia. Inhabited for at least 2,500 years, Budva is one of the oldest settlements on the Adriatic, and the centre of Montenegro's small but important tourist industry. It was here in 2007 that Warwickº bought a copy of Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavićº, which was the first English-language book he had seen during his trip. His diary records that he carried the novel with him to a restaurant that evening, where the owner ‘showed off a platter of fish that his son had just caught. Hannah picked out a sea bass, and they cooked it right there on a grill in the corner’. The owner, having made sure that his guests had finished eating, then sat down at their table and joined them to finish a bottle of home-made bearberry rakia which Hannah later described as ‘gruelling’ and blamed for a nosebleed. That Pavić's book was used as a coaster on this occasion can be seen from the many pale rings on its back cover, which resemble the icon of an otherworldly Olympics in which all competitors finished last. When the pair, staggering slightly, got back to their tiny hotel room after dinner, there was a nasty surprise waiting. Tucked into an alcove in the wall of their room was the most terrifying oil painting either had ever seen. It showed a black-clad old woman glaring out at the world with an expression of concentrated hatred; it had been half-concealed when they had taken the room, but now, from the bed, it looked down on them like a prop from the staging of an Edgar Allen Poe story. Turning the lights out did not help, since a quirk of the shutters meant that a single shaft of moonlight landed precisely on the crone's furious face. Under such circumstances, reading, like other activities, was out of the question, and the two of them lay awake all night, wide-eyed and motionless. In the morning, Warwick pushed Pavić's novel unread into his backpack, where it remained for the duration of their holiday.

Dɪᴄᴛɪᴏɴᴀʀʏ—A collection of words, arranged in order, for the purposes of explanation or translation. Bilingual Sumerian–Akkadian wordlists have been excavated from Ebla (modern Syria), meaning that dictionaries as a concept go back nearly four and a half millennia. The Goodreads reviewer Warwickº has sixty-eight of them on his shelves (at least according to the tags), although Dictionary of the Khazars, of course, being a novel, is not among them. Even Milorad Pavićº, the author, does not present his book as a dictionary strictly so-called, but rather as a kind of encyclopaedia. In reality, there exists no dictionary of the language spoken by the Khazarsº, who used an unknown tongue of which only a single word has come down to us: OKHQURŪM, an offhand scrawl at the bottom of a letter written in a runiform Old Turkic script to the Jewish community of Kiev in around 930. Scholars think it means ‘We have read it’. From this we can conclude that historical linguistics is not a field untouched by irony. A dictionary is not a novel; yet all lovers of dictionaries will be aware of the ghost-narrative that can arise from flicking through one, and allowing connections to spark between the words serendipitously encountered.

Kʜᴀᴢᴀʀs—A Turkic people of Central Asia, who for centuries had a powerful empire astride the Silk Road, until they disappeared into obscurity sometime around the tenth century. In his novel Dictionary of the Khazars, Milorad Pavićº tells a number of strange legends and anecdotes about their society and lifestyle, a few of which are real but most of which are elegant fabrications. One effect of the novel is to make their fate seem universal: in some sense, Pavić seems to suggest, we are all Khazars, awaiting our own extinction, looking ahead to a future when, ultimately, we will pass out of all memory and understanding. There are also some willy jokes.

Pᴀᴠɪᴄ́, Mɪʟᴏʀᴀᴅ (1929–2009)—Pavić was born into a family of artists and poets in Belgrade and was, perhaps, always fated to assume his role as Serbia's most famous modern writer. As a child, it was said that he could remember the details of all his dreams, and would recite them at length to people, only occasionally falling silent, as though on the brink of some unsayable revelation. His first novel, Dictionary of the Khazars, came only in his mid-fifties when he had turned his back on poetry, though the renunciation was only nominal: the book reads as much like poetry as it does any traditional novel. Written in the hypertextual form of a dictionaryº, it was hailed as the first novel of the twenty-first century. The year was 1984. When Warwickº bought a copy of the novel in Budvaº, in 2007, Pavić might easily have been described as Serbia's greatest living writer; by the time he actually read the book, Pavić had been dead for nearly a decade, his own life, like those of his Khazars, beginning its slow journey from news to history to legend to forgetting.

Pʀɪʙɪᴄ́ᴇᴠɪᴄ́-Zᴏʀɪᴄ́, Cʜʀɪsᴛɪɴᴀ—Born in New York, Pribićević-Zorić already had a smattering of Slavic (thanks to her Yugoslavian father) when she moved to Belgrade for a year as a post-graduate. She stayed for more than twenty. Her English translation of Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavićº is fluent and poetic and gives you a good idea of why native speakers hold him in such regard. She has translated from ‘Serbian’, ‘Croatian’ and ‘Bosnian’, which are all really slight variants on the same dialect – we used to call Serbo-Croatian, until political motivations inspired a linguistic break-up. In 2007, when Warwick bought his copy of the book in Montenegro, the Montenegrins still considered themselves to be speaking Serbian, though soon afterwards they began to call it ‘Montenegrin’. One or two words then take on talismanic proportions – the word for bread, hljeb, which is pronounced locally with more palatalisation than Serbian hleb, suddenly becomes almost a national symbol. The Balkanisation of languages in the Balkans can give you an insight into why the subject of a lost dictionaryº – especially when it exists in multiple, contradictory versions, as here – might be an appealing subject for a writer from Yugoslavia.

Wᴀʀᴡɪᴄᴋ (ʙ. 1978)—English-born lapsed journalist and the author of this review. Of the thousands of books on his shelves, a few volumes have got lost or become unaccounted for over the years, during house moves or reorganisations or ill-advised lending-outs to unscrupulous extended family members. Occasionally, though, these reappear again some years later, unexpectedly, dropping out from behind a jolted shelf or tumbling from the forgotten pouch of an old bag, and forcing a sudden clash between the state of your life as it was then, when you bought it, and the state of your life now, as you stare, baffled, at the faded paperback. So it was with Warwick's copy of Milorad Pavić'sº first novel about the Khazarsº, which somehow survived being dragged across the Balkans, stuffed in an attic in Kent, put in storage in Lincolnshire, anonymously and serially stashed in three Paris apartments and transited across two more international borders, before finally being read in a week of commutes to Zurich. The girl he bought it with is now his wife, the jobs they do are different, the places they live are different, the languages they use are different – so many people and places and languages and times, all of them cannoning together and all of them, eventually, to be lost, completely, just allow for a certain timeframe, to be lost as surely as the Khazars and their unknowable, irrecoverable, undoubtedly beautiful language… ( )
1 vote Widsith | Jul 16, 2018 |
In the 8th century, the Khan of the Khazars had a dream and invited a Muslim, a Christian, and a Jewish scholar to interpret it and debate each other, promising that he and his people would convert to the religion of the scholar who gave the best performance. This novel takes the form of three dictionaries, one for each of the three religions, which give accounts of the Khazars, the disputation, the scholars, and people involved with the first, 17th century, edition of the dictionaries.

The first time I read this, I quite enjoyed it as a puzzle looking at the way individuals and events were seen through different lenses and echoed down the years, but this time I just found it tiresome. I don't know whether it's just that I'm getting older or the internet is decreasing my attention span or because the book doesn't have the same impact without the accompanying hype. ( )
  Robertgreaves | Sep 19, 2017 |
Country: Serbia

I bought this in 1989 and have dipped into it now and then, but decided that now was the time to read it through. Dictionary of the Khazars is a novel in encyclopedic form. It is post-diluvean, fragmented, and, though internally logical, follows dream-logic. Meanings are obscure and malleable, yet characters proceed with certainty, even when the reader knows that the characters' certain interpretations are contradicted elsewhere and at other times. It embodies the problem of attempting to reconstruct a first source, and the sorrow that follows on realizing that whatever the Ur-source was, it cannot be regained and must remain essentially unknowable. At this level, it is a novel about psychology, about desire, which, as Lacan reminds us, is that which cannot be fulfilled. Instead, meaning is accretionary and imperfect. The building of Babel cannot be undone; destroying the Tower yields a destroyed tower, not the state before the tower existed. In important ways, reality is neither observable nor accessible. This dictionary, a compilation of fragments and glosses of three earlier sections, as well as other made and lost parts, is itself fragmentary and unknowable.

Dictionary of the Khazars reads like much mystical writing of the middle ages: Self-referential, illogical, certain of its assumptions. In reading, one understands Pavić's observation, "Knowledge is a perishable commodity; it can turn sour in a second. Like the future" (p. 243). If you like postmodern writing about writing, you'll like this very much. If you don't, this is not a good place to start. Read with Robert Irwin's The Arabian Nightmare to lose yourself in uncomfortable dreams, and with Wilson's The Chronoliths for strange dislocations of time and causality.
( )
  OshoOsho | Mar 30, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Milorad Pavićprimary authorall editionscalculated
Dokter, ReinaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gerritse, MarjanDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jansen, ChristelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mühlbauer, RitaCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Petkov, GordanaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The author assures the reader that he will not have to die if he reads this book, as did the user of the 1691 edition, when The Khazar Dictionary still had its first scribe.
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The Dictionary of the Khazars was published simultaneously in "male" and "female" versions. There is a slight, but critical, difference between the texts; please distinguish between them. This LT Work is the Male Edition. Thank you.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679724613, Paperback)

A national bestseller, Dictionary of the Khazars was cited by The New York Times Book Review as one of the best books of the year. Written in two versions, male and female (both available in Vintage International), which are identical save for seventeen crucial lines, Dictionary is the imaginary book of knowledge of the Khazars, a people who flourished somewhere beyond Transylvania between the seventh and ninth centuries. Eschewing conventional narrative and plot, this lexicon novel combines the dictionaries of the world's three major religions with entries that leap between past and future, featuring three unruly wise men, a book printed in poison ink, suicide by mirrors, a chimerical princess, a sect of priests who can infiltrate one's dreams, romances between the living and the dead, and much more.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:35 -0400)

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