Dictionary of the Khazars (1984)
by Milorad Pavić
Producing a novel by blending source materials which combine facts with fiction to create a fictitious narrative of real history has become a well-established rode to both critical and popular success. Most recently, this vibrant genre has been highlighted by English author Hilary Mantel, who became the first woman to win the Booker Prize twice, both for works which fit within this description. Dictionary of the Khazars was an early success in this area, the work of Serbian author and Nobel Prize for Literature-also ran Milorad Pavic. His success with Dictionary of the Khazars is attributable both to the book itself and for the market in fiction translated into English. The development of popular and critical audience for fiction translated into English is as old as those audiences themselves, but certainly the sprawling international publishing industry of the 1980's and 1990's, together with similarly international film studios, elevated the area of translated fiction from a backwater to a major player at the intersection of popular and serious fiction.
Dictionary of the Khazars revolves around the historical but poorly understood Khazar polity of the early middle ages. Located on the plains north of the Black Sea, their leader famously converted to Judaism for reasons which remain obscure. Dictionary of the Khazars takes the form of three overlapping but conflicting encyclopedias referencing the (fictional) historical event of the Khazar Polemics, where a Christian, Muslim and Jewish wise man debated the interpreted a dream for the leader of the Khazars. with the winner being allowed to convert the entire Khazar people.
Not surprisingly, the three different encyclopedia's differ substantially, beginning with each claiming victory for their particularly faith and obscuring the existence of the other participants in the Khazar polemic. Certain figures, notably the Princess Ateh, recur, others are specific to one of the three books. Pavic provides academic annotation in the true style of high post-modernism, to the point where historically attested "fact" are interchangeable with authorial created fiction.
Certain descriptions extend into the procedurally generated fantastic realism of Italo Calvino. Particularly, some of the broader descriptions of "Khazar" society echo certain portions of Calvino's Invisible Cities (1972).