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Milorad Pavić: Hazarski recnik. Roman-leksikon u 100.000 reci (Dictionary of the Khazars, a Novel-Lexicon in 100,000 Words)

Pavić’s novel is a novel written as a dictionary or, rather, a dictionary with three variants – a Christian, Muslim and Jewish variant. Its style is reminiscent of the writing of Ismail Kadaré or Jorge Luis Borges. The Khazars were a real people. They are primarily of historical interest to us for two reasons. Firstly, though they had a relatively large empire at one time, they have essentially disappeared, leaving relatively few remains. Secondly, legend has it that they needed to choose a new religion and they interviewed a Christian, a Muslim and a Jew and ended up choosing Judaism, primarily because the Jews were not backed by a mighty empire and they did not want to be seen taking sides. This legend is now questioned by historians but not by this book.

Pavić gives us three parts to his dictionary, essentially the Christian, Muslim and Jewish perspective. In each case, in the Khazar Polemic – the choice of religion – each part says that the Khazars chose their religion. But what has bemused many readers and fascinated others is that the book, while discussing both the religious and historical issues, is full of fantastic events and people, with conventional logic turned on its head à la Jorge Luis Borges. There is the (contemporary) woman who writes detailed letters to herself or the Khazars, who favour the Muslims, Christians and Jews at the expense of their own people or the hen that lays days of the week or the woman who produces black milk. The list goes on. In short, for Pavić, this lost people with their strange way of adopting religion stand for a different world that is lost but may be still here with us – Christian, Jew and Muslim, though hidden. However, you interpret it – and, clearly, different readers have interpreted it in many different ways – it remains a superb novel and a superb way of looking at the world in a different way.

Publishing history

First published 1984 by Prosveta
First English translation Knopf/Hamish Hamilton 1988