Ktismatics

26 February 2010

Islamic Sources on the Khazar Question

Filed under: Fiction — ktismatics @ 10:45 am

“And so the Princess Ateh was left to live forever; she could return endlessly and without haste to each of her thoughts and each of her words, because eternity had blunted her feelings for what comes before and what comes after in time. Love she could have only in her dreams. That is why Princess Ateh devoted herself completely to her sect of dream hunters, Khazar priests who strove to create a sort of earthly version of that heavenly register mentioned in the Holy Book. Her skills and theirs enabled her to send messages, her own thoughts or others’, even objects, into people’s dreams. Princess Ateh could reach the dream of someone a thousand years younger, and she could send any object to someone dreaming of her as safely as a messenger riding a horse nourished on wine, only much, much faster…

“[Al-Bakri the Spaniard] wrote in his cage by using his teeth to cut letters into the shell of a crab or a turtle, but since he did not know how to read what he had written, he dropped the animals back into the water, never knowing what messages he was sending out into the world. At other times, catching turtles at low tide, he would receive messages on their shells and read them, but he never understood a word of what he read. He died dreaming of salty female breasts in a gravy of saliva and toothache, relearning the language of the Holy Book from the tree on which he hung.”

– Milorad Pavić, Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel, 1984

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7 Comments »

  1. These are both such compelling images, perhaps especially because I don’t know their contexts as characters. Your post comes at a time when I’m thinking a lot about memory and loss, so thank you. Because Pavic’s female character faces the grim fate of eternal memory and consiousness I am reminded of Nietzsche’s thoughts on the role forgetting plays in happiness (recently discussed @ Dead Voles) and, in contrast, a Milan Kundera quote I recently came across:

    “Forgetting… is the great private problem of man; death as the loss of self. But what of self? It is the sum of everything we remember. Thus, what terrifies us about death is not the loss of future but the loss of past. Forgetting is a form of death ever present in life.”

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    Comment by Rachel — 28 February 2010 @ 8:19 am

  2. Hi Rachel. The book was recommended to me by another Vole — Asher Kay.

    I saw that you were working with Carl’s grandparents’ slides, documenting events for which you can have no personal memory but which maybe for that reason makes them seem like something forgotten. Similarly, I have a whole bunch of old snapshots I inherited from my great aunt Ethel, depicting a whole host of people I don’t know at all. Are they long-lost relatives whose identity is now lost forever to me, or were they just people whom Ethel knew, people of absolutely no personal relevance to me? Maybe some day after I die our daughter will come across these photos and will wonder who those people were…

    This is a strange book, consisting entirely of encyclopedia-like entries for important figures in the history of Khazars, who held an empire in the Caucasus during the middle ages. The Khazars are gone now, having been absorbed by the Turks and Russians and the various “Stans” in the region. It’s not clear how many of the characters in Pavic’s book are actual historic figures rather than ones he made up. Clearly most of the stories about them are pure fiction, probably not even based on legend. So the context for these little stories is practically nil, conjuring a series of images barely linked to each other in the larger mythology.

    Oddly, I recently read another medieval fiction set among the Khazars: Gentlemen of the Road, by Michael Chabon. It was an inconsequential tale, but the florid archaic language and setting more or less redeemed it.

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    Comment by john doyle — 28 February 2010 @ 1:11 pm

  3. Pavic, like many prominent Serbs (most notably-Nikola Tesla), has been completely unhonored for his innovations in hypertext that are the essence of the Khazars, long before hypertext actually appeared. Eloise why are you ignoring me now, did you sell out to objectology as well or are you secretly sucking Missus’s tits as well???

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    Comment by the voice of parodic reason — 28 February 2010 @ 7:55 pm

  4. Hi Dejan. I forgot to mention the hypertext feature, which in a written text must be managed by cross-referencing of the entries. I made no use of this feature while reading, preferring instead to read it front to back like an ordinary book. You may be pleased to know that there is a Tesla Street in Boulder, as well as a Tesla auto dealership — this is a new CA-based firm that makes expensive electric cars.

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    Comment by john doyle — 28 February 2010 @ 9:42 pm

  5. For all the strikingness of the hypertextual stuff, I think Pavic’s real brilliance is in the prose itself. His writing is like a dream you can wake up from and still grasp, because of the detail and coherence that he gives to the fantastical elements.

    Glad you picked up the book, John. Are you enjoying it?

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    Comment by Asher Kay — 1 March 2010 @ 7:41 am

  6. The structure fit the material: as a reader you get the sense of trying to piece together a lost world from fragments, like an archaeologist. But the fragments are mythic, so you realize that the individual legends cannot possibly fit together into a coherent and realistic whole: to do so is a work of creation as much as it is a discovery. The encyclopedia is itself divided into three books — the Christian, the Islamic, the Jewish — so even the same mythic element might be told in three different ways. The content and the meaning depend on the larger mythic realities in which the story fragments happen to be embedded.

    Thanks for the recommendation, Asher. I liked it but found its “fictional nonfiction” structure useful for the Iconist book I’m intending to write. I’ve pictured a similar structure, comprised of fragments from which a larger picture only gradually and inconclusively breaks through. It does require more attention from the reader, since Pavic doesn’t carry you along with plot or character development. I had to return the book to the library, so I’ll probably either request it again later or buy a copy.

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    Comment by john doyle — 1 March 2010 @ 8:20 am

  7. […] 1, 2010 by Rachel Loving something John Doyle said to me: “I saw that you were working with Carl’s grandparents’ slides, documenting […]

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    Pingback by there, there: an installation (part 4) « — 1 March 2010 @ 4:08 pm


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