Borges: Influence and References

Milorad Pavic

By Michael Helsem

The country of Milorad Pavic no longer exists. His first novel, Dictionary of the Khazars, was written in Serbo-Croatian – which the Serbs write in one alphabet and the Croats in another – but first published in 1988 in France. The following year saw its English translation win wide critical acclaim and a keen appreciation among readers of arcane texts.
Dictionary of the Khazars takes as its ostensible subject a people of whom the bare appellation scarcely remains, and an era (the 9c.) so obscure that one revisionist historian (Illig) has suggested that it never even happened. In this tabula rasa, Pavic devises a fairytale-like conundrum. The emperor of the Khazars has had a dream, and three holy men – one Christian, one Jewish, and one Moslem – are asked to interpret it. The best interpretation will result in the emperor’s people converting to that religion. Pavic writes as if all three of the possibilities had separately occurred, and fills each third of the book with fanciful but scholarly improvisations flavored by each culture in turn.
To say that the book is cunningly constructed and self-referential is like saying that a kaleidoscope is shifty. But the genuinely folklorish surrealism of the (reduplicated and fractured) episodes makes this ultimately indeterminate tale well worth reading, even if you don’t feel like perusing it ten times over – which one suspects is the auctorial intent. (Why else would Pavic publish two versions of the novel, one “male” and one “female,” differing only by a single, unnamed paragraph?) Pavic, an enthusiastic admirer of Borges, makes use of several Borgesian devices in his labyrinthine debut. There’s the use of pseudo-scholary apparatus to add solidity to the fantastical episodes, the multiple cross-references and reflections permeating every page, and, perhaps most importantly, its indeterminacy: alternative explanations and contradictory narratives abound.
Pavic’s other works follow in the postmodern tradition of forking paths and multiple narratives; indeed, Pavic has remarked that his aim was to “transform literature, which is a nonreversible art, into a reversible one.” His second novel, Landscape Painted with Tea, is partly based on a crossword puzzle. Similar to Dictionary only in the Arabian Nights outlandishness of its figurative language, it is altogether a less prismatic work, though not without feeling, particularly on its main theme of fathers and sons. Basically the story of heartbroken architect, its plot may be unravelled by reading its chapters either “up” or “down.” Obsessed with a reader’s entrance and exit points in the text, Pavic’s next two novels attempted to “eliminate or destroy the beginning and the end.” The Inner Side of the Wind tells two interconnecting versions of the story of Hero and Leander, each beginning at one end of the book and working across four centuries of time toward the center; the novel may be read in either direction. In Last Love in Constantinople, Pavic relates the stories of warring families over twenty-one chapters, each based on a Tarot card. Like Quain’s April March and Cortázar’s Hopscotch, the book may be read in any number of ways, from straight forward to a random sequence governed by the shuffling of Tarot cards.

Additional Information

Milorad Pavic Homepage – Pavic’s “official” homepage, this site is maintained by his wife, Jasmina Mihajlovic.

Books and Writers Pavic Page – The Pavic page at the Books and Writers site.

Pavic Interview – Thanassis Lallas interview Pavic; online at the Dalkey Archive Press. In the rather philosophical interview, Pavic describes Borges as “the best and most talented reader in our century.”

Dictionary of the Khazars – A page on the novel at the Electronic Labyrinth.

Selected Works of Milorad Pavic

Dictionary of the Khazars (1984)
Male Version. Vintage, 1989

Dictionary of the Khazars (1984)
Female Version. Vintage, 1989

Landscape Painted with Tea (1988)
Knopf, 1991

The Inner Side of the Wind (1991)
Knopf, 1993

Last Love in Constantinople (1994)
Dufour, 1999

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