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.)

Dream Hunting

January 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic.

Reading next: The Jade Cabinet, by Rikki Ducornet.

Pavic (there should really be an accent on that final c, but I can’t seem to find it among the symbols) died in December, spurring me to finally get around to reading this, his first book.  I loved Landscape Painted with Tea, a novel inspired by crossword puzzles, able to be read “Across” or “Down.” He’s like the Serbian love-child of Borges and Kafka.

I’m afraid I haven’t loved Dictionary of the Khazars as much, though it certainly has interesting elements (maybe a few too many, actually).  As was the case with Landscape, reading it is both an education and an entertainment: I knew nothing about the existence of a people known as the Khazars before I started reading this, and thought them an invention of the author, when they really are a historical fact, dominant in Eastern Europe from the 7th to 10th centuries (just as I never knew of the existence of the monasteries of Mount Athos before reading Landscape).  Of course, Pavic is using both groups — and many other things we never get taught in school in the U.S. — as devices for his literary concerns, furiously embellishing and inventing.  But it gets you peeking into encyclopedias, poking around the Internet, and you find, not only that you don’t know much about much, but  that you don’t know as much as you think you do about what’s made up and what’s not.

The dream hunters are an invention, but what an invention!  In their entry in the Dictionary, they are introduced like so: “A sect of Khazar priests whose protectress was Princess Ateh.  They 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.”  This thread of the “plot” woven through the novel’s entries — especially the interconnected tales of Avram Brankovich, Yusuf Masudi, and Samuel Cohen — is what I’ve enjoyed most about the book.  The core of the dream hunters’ essential mission is explained to Masudi by an old mystic:

“The goal of dream hunters is to understand that every awakening is just one step in the many releases from dreaming.  He who understands that his day is merely another person’s night, that his two eyes are another person’s one, will search for the real day, which enables true awakening from one’s own reality, just as one awakens from a dream, and this leads to a condition where man is even more wakeful than when conscious.  Then he will finally see that he has one eye as opposed to those with two, and is blind compared with those who are awake….”

This is not only some real pre-Matrix metaphysically deep shit, it also seems to be a core tenet of the (limited amount of) Eastern European literature I’ve read, as practiced by Kafka, Bruno Schulz, and their ilk.  The importance of being “even more wakeful than when conscious” — of paying attention to dreams as something which can awaken us to a truer reality than our mundane lives — and of realizing that there are layers of meaning, connection, and “reality” among the many forms of life and consciousness: I do not know why, but these seem to be central to the concerns of the Eastern European fabulists.

Pavic puts his own spin on these ideas, by expanding them into the idea that the true, impossible goal is the reconstruction from “all human dreams” of Adam Ruhani (also called Adam Cadmon in the Jewish portion of the dictionary — both real concepts in Islam and Judaism, respectively, though extensively embellished here).  Adam Ruhani “thought the way we dream,” before his fall.  The dream hunters try to put Ruhani back together, finding and tracking key elements shared in people’s dreams.  Awesome idea.

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