Monday, February 28, 2011

Milorad Pavic - Weaver Of Dreams And Thoughts

Where does one start with trying to explain what the 'Dictionary of Khazars' is about and how does one try to explain it as coherently as possible even if he makes a start at some point. The novel itself is structured in such a way that it does not lend to the conventional ways of telling about it. So, instead I will try to just write down my thoughts on this, however abstract they may appear. I look at this novel from 3 view points, which I think as a whole enhances the impact of it.
Borges wrote in his 'Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote' that a person who translates/writes a copy of Don Quixote becomes in effect a new writer writing a completely different novel from the one he is translating. I will quote in slightly out of context here when I say that every reader who reads this novel is going to read slightly different novel in perspective. How does this happen? The novel itself is structured like an dictionary where user can pick and choose the entries he wants to read in some random order. For e.g. what would be the experience of a person who read about princesses Ateh at the beginning and about the 3 doctors (Suk, Muawia and Schultz) at the end and another reader who reads the same in vice versa (i.e) read about the doctors in the beginning and about Ateh in the end? What if someone reads the appendix of Nikolsky at the beginning (do not ever try this one). That brings us to the question of why has Pavic structured the novel like this and is he not actually alienating the last 100 readers themselves from reading a book that is structured like this? I think the answer lies in the fact that all of us aspire to be writers (that's why blogs are so famous) and so when we get a chance to restructure a book, well we are sucked into it. So what happens if a non-adventurous readers reads the book in a linear fashion from the beginning to end. Is he going to be more clear about it? Not at all, Pavic has some tricks up his sleeve for this too. With 3 books and multiple perspectives of the same character available, he still wont be 100% sure. For e.g. who is Ateh, is she the princess of the Kaghan, his wife, his sister, leader of a secret cult, does she work for or against the Kaghan. Who knows for sure, she could be one and many of all those. So is the novel fully random as it seems, not really. Within all this apparent randomness, Pavic maintains a symmetry with the number 3. The 3 religions, the 3 books, the 3 persons who initially participated in the polemic, the 3 people in the middle ages who created a dictionary in their respective languages and finally the 3 professors in the current age. Underlying the apparent chaos is some unfathomable order as is the case with real life.
Well, the novel's structure is out of the way. What else is special about this book. Well for one it's exquisite prose (am assuming here that the translation has in no way enhanced the original and has remained as faithful to it as realistically possible). Forget the khazars and their conversion for some time, that is just a backdrop according to me. This is a novel of ideas and thoughts. Ideas and thoughts on dreams, death, time, that open up our mind and imagination to the unlimited possibilities that fiction offers in altering and even creating a new world view for you. What else can you say about a novel where a person chooses a day to live and interchanges a Monday with Tuesday and where an egg gives you an option to remove one day which you do not want. Time as a linear entity is molded into different shapes as Pavic wishes. More than I personally was dumbstruck, but two persons dreaming each others reality (Cohen and Avram), wow, where did that come from? As a novel of thoughts, the other novel that came to my mind that works in a similar way is Calvino's Invisible cities, but that's a post for another day. I don't know if I can say that the prose is the icing on the cake which is the novel's inventive structure or vice versa. In fact I feel both complement each other and take the novel to great heights than what would have been possible if one of them had not be so good in the novel.
I have so far not mentioned much about the characters. That does not mean that they are not up to standard. The character portraits are done in such a way that even if their actions seem metaphysical or plain fantastical, the reader can relate to them. For instance the story of Petkukin is almost like a Greek tragedy in its scope. What about Dr.Schultz who keeps writing a letter to  a younger version of herself who exists in her mind only. These are characters who manage to rise about the weight of the structure and prose of their novel and make their presence felt. The characters seem to be in search of something, not just the almost mythical dictionary, but something beyond that.
Finally, during reading of the novel and even after completing it, this is the image or thought that sticks in my mind. The whole novel seems to be like a dream conjured up by Pavic for us readers. We readers get inside the dream, trying to make sense of the novel as a complete whole, which in turn would lead us to Adam Cadmon/Ruhani, the first father, who in the case of the novel is Pavic himself. Pavic meanwhile is waiting for us, but as is the case with the real world, I don't think we can achieve it but just get one perspective. Maybe each reader could be a dream hunter, searching for other readers of the novel (innumerable Avrams, Masudis, Cohens) and if all readers of the novel come together we may have a 'Readers Dictionary of The Dictionary of the Khazars'. Sounds weird? Well, call it the Pavic effect, but I am not out of it yet :)

No comments:

Post a Comment