Hypertext, Paratext, Metaphor, and My Confusion
January 18, 2010 § Leave a comment
Just finished: Dictionary of the Khazars.
Before moving on, just a few words about this book’s complex structure (you could say, “overly, needlessly complex” — yeah, let’s say that) and how I went about reading it.
Pavic wanted readers to participate as full partners in creating his fiction: he wanted them to skip around in it, picking how they want to read (within certain reasonable patterns), not following a single preordained pattern of linear reading. This is an analog hypertext, in other words. The book has “Preliminary Notes,” followed by three dictionaries (more like encyclopedias, actually): Red, Green, and Yellow Books, with entries related to the Khazars from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish sources and perspectives, respectively. Then there are two appendices. So far as I can tell, these are appendices and not incorporated into the entries only because Pavic wanted them to be read after the other entries. It’s not as though the content of the entries themselves is so overly focused. The substantial entries are linked stories, for all their trappings as scholarly entries. There are also two slightly different versions of the book: a “Male Edition,” and a “Female Edition,” differing by one paragraph.
I read the book like so: first, the preliminary notes. Then I read the four entries included in each of the three books, which seemed fairly introductory to me. Then I started following links in those entries to other entries, which led to a more or less chronological reading, with a few exceptions: from entries on the historical Khazars of the 7th-10th centuries and their conversions to other religions, to entries on the three characters of the 17th century linked by their dreams and the creation of the destroyed first edition of the Dictionary of the Khazars, to entries on the 20th-century characters studying the history of the Khazars in one way or another. I read the first appendix after it was linked in the text, somewhere in the middle; I read the second appendix and closing author’s note at the end, since they were never linked anywhere in the text.
The metafictional apparatus by which the book purports to be a reconstruction and expansion of a lost 17th-century original (of which two copies, one written with some kind of magically poisoned ink, survived) never quite worked for me. Mostly it just confused me. It’s certainly a good example of the kinds of bibliographic muddles one can get into in researching old books, and trying to understand the sources of those books; and the idea that the sources of the three books of the different religions need to talk to each other to understand the entire story of the Khazars is also an important one. But the artifice is never convincing. The entries are, for the most part, incredibly detailed but also somewhat random: the list of entries is much more novelistic than scholarly or lexicographical. The gaps in knowledge seem convenient. Partly I think this is an epistemological critique, a way of reconstructing a whole race, a people that have been forgotten precisely through such Western exercises as the compilation of historical sources and archival material. If that’s the case, I don’t think it’s entirely successful. Somehow it just seems messy.
Part of my problem with the book, I suspect, is also with the often baffling language. Is this a translation problem, a problem of my lack of knowledge, or a problem of my method of reading — if I’d read the book in another order, would I have caught the meaning behind some of these perplexing metaphors and constructions? Indeed, in many cases there is a connection to another entry or a recurring character, but not in nearly all cases. Just for three instances chosen at random from many, if someone can fill me in on what might be meant by “She always thought she had three Fridays until dinnertime” or “‘Do you know how many mouth holes the Jews have?’ his mother asked that day as he ate” or “…Cohen had swallowed a soaring bird with his left eye,” I’d appreciate it. Few of these weird folkloric metaphors and surrealistic intrusions into fictive reality struck a chord with me; mostly they were just frustrating. (Though at least in the case of Dr. Suk’s entry it seems possible that all or most of the events are taking place within a dream, which lends the tone and language some credence. By and large, the dreams in the book are more lucid and straightforward than the supposed reality. Perhaps I’m looking at the book with two eyes when I should be looking with one, as Pavic would have it.)