cover image Dictionary of the Khazars

Dictionary of the Khazars

Milorad Pavic. Alfred A. Knopf, $19.95 (338pp) ISBN 978-0-394-57183-6

Written in Serbo-Croatian, first published in Yugoslavia, already a bestseller in Germany and France, this whimsical ``lexicon'' can be read on many levels. Pavic, professor of Serbian literature at the University of Belgrade, cares passionately about literature and he teases us through the unusual format of this novel to explore the subject. Entries are alphabetically arranged and can be perused at random, read start to finish or back to front. The publisher is offering two different versions, designated ``male'' and ``female,'' and differing by only 15 lines. The narrative purports to be the historical record of the Khazars, a fictional Indo-European tribe that vanished in the 10th century. According to legend, the Khazar ruler asked a rabbi, a monk and a dervish to interpret a portentous dream; the winner would gain the conversion of the Khazar people to Judaism, Christianity or Islam. The result of this contest was lost in time. Interest in the ``Khazar Polemic'' prompted the Serbian warlord Avram Brankovich to compile a dictionary on the Khazars with the help of his retinue in the 17th century. Codified by a monk, the dictionary subsequently was 99% destroyed; one copy was found and revised; now it has fallen into the hands of modern-day scholars. Pavic is a 20th century Scheherazade, spinning a series of interconnected folk tales, drawing on a vast source of literary references, eventually metamorphosing his narrative into a murder mystery. Readers who are intrigued by literary conundrums will enjoy entering this magical world with Pavic as their guide. 40,0000 combined first printing. (October)