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|Milorad Pavic (1929-2009)|
Serbian novelist, short story writer, poet, translator, and literary historian. Pavic tested with a fresh and innovative approach the limits of narrative structure. His multi-layered Dictionary of the Khazars (1984) is considered one of the most intriguing works in postmodernist fiction. In Paris Match Philippe Tretiak called the work "the first novel of the twenty-first century."
"Suffice it to say that his dreams are faster than those of other people, that he dreams more swiftly than a horse, and that his telephones neigh like a stable full of stallions, reporting on these dreams." (from Landscape Painted with Tea, 1988)
Milorad Pavic was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia), into a distinguished family of writers. He graduated from the University of Belgrade and received his Ph.D. in literary history at the University of Zagreb. Pavic began his academic career at the Sorbonne and continued in Vienna. After teaching literature at the universities of Novi Sad, Freiburg, Regensburg, Belgrade, Pavic devoted himself entirely to writing. His first collection of poetry appeared in 1967. With his wife, the writer and literary critic Jasmina Mihajlovic, he settled in Belgrade. In 1991 Pavic was elected a member of the Serbian Academy of Science and Arts. Pavic died of complications of a heart attack on November 30, 2009, in Belgrade.
"I was the best known writer of the most hated nation in the world – the Serbian nation."
Pavic made his debut as a poet in 1967 with Palimpseti. It was followed by Mesecev kamen (1971) and several books of short stories, including Gvozdena zavesa (1973), Konji svetoga Marka (1976). Lyrics such as "Rejoice Eleventh Finger Reckoner of Stars" and "But I'm the One From Whom They Stole a Button From His Trouser Leg" reveal Pavic's fascination with paradoxical and unconventional images. He has also published monographs of literary history from Serbian Baroque and Symbolist poetry, reviving and re-evaluating some older Serbian writers and editing their neglected works. Among Pavlic's studies are Istorija srpske knjizevnosti baroknog doba (1970), Vojislav Ilic, njegovo vreme i delo (1972), and Radjanje nove srpske knjizevnosti (1983).
Hazarski recnik (1984, Dictionary of the Khazars), Pavic's first novel, is a playful mock-history of the Khazars, located somewhere among Turkey, Russia and the Slavic countries to the west. In the late 9th century A.D., the great Khan, ruler of the obscure Caucasian people, summons the three leading scholars to determine which religion his people will adopt. The story is told in three versions according to the "sources" – the Christian in the Red book, the Islamic in the Green, and the Hebrew in the Yellow, referring to the fact that there is no single correct point of view to any fundamental question. "And so, when I began to read the proffered pages, I at one moment lost the train of thought in the text and drowned it in my own feelings. In these seconds of absence and self-oblivion, centuries passed with every read but uncomprehended and unabsorbed line, and when, after a few moments, I came to and re-established contact with the text, I knew that the reader who returns from the open seas of his feelings is no longer the same reader who embarked on that sea only a short while ago." (from Dictionary of the Khazars, female version)
In the story there is no distinct line separating reality from fantasy, the past from the future. Pavic once explained, that each reader can "'put together the book for himself, as in a game of dominoes or cards." Pavic's lexicon novel continues the long tradition of histories of imaginary lands, starting from Jonathan Swift's islands for his Lilliputs, Brobdingnags, and continuing in Lewis Carrol's Wonderland, L. Frank Baum's Oz, etc. The book within a book itself comes in two editions, a "male" and a "female" version, which differ by one paragraph. Behind a net of legends, facts, metaphysical philosophizing, and quasi-historical stories, the reader can decipher a plot, in which the Khazar dream-hunters try to attach themselves to the body of the angel ancestor of mankind. They "plunge into other people's dreams and sleep and from them extract little pieces of Adam-the-precursor's being, composing them into a whole, into so-called Khazar dictionaries..." The Khazars are said to be a mythical tribe, who flourished somewhere in the Balkans between the seventh and ninth centuries. The present dictionary is based on a destroyed book, which was reconstructed from the dictionary of the Khazar dream-hunters. "Everybody can discover and read in my books many things," Pavic said in an interview. "The reader has nearly the same rights as the author."
Pavic's second novel, Predeo slikan cajem (1988, Landscape with Tea), is a playful combination of a crossword puzzle and modern Odyssey. Atanas Svilar (alias Razin) is a failed architect, who tries to find an answer to his question "why had his life been barren and futile, despite the enormous effort invested?" He joins a monastery on Greece's Mount Athos, where his father who disappeared during World War II had been. Svilar's search for his roots and for the meaning of life becomes entwined with the history and secrets of the most ancient of all monasteries. In Book Two Svilar changes his name to Atanas Fyodorovich Razin, leaves his family, and moves with the beautiful Vitacha Milut to the United States where he becomes rich. The plot is constructed like a cryptic crossword, with chapters which can be read 'down' or 'across.' The solution of the puzzle is supposed to lead to the solution of life.
Poslednja ljubav u Carigradu (1994, Last Love in Constantinople) has an innovative game-oriented twist as Landscape Painted with Tea: Subtitled "A Tarot Novel of Divination,'' the book is accompanied by a pack of Tarot cards, which the reader may use to read in a new way the books 21 chapters. This postmodernist experimentation has much in common with Julio Cortázar's novel Hopscotch (1963). Last Love in Constantinople is a colorful romance set in Eastern Europe during the Napoleonic Wars. The protagonist is Sofronije Opujic, a young cavalryman, whose service in Napoleon's army is complicated by a mysterious prophecy and love for the daughter of his father's enemy.
Characteristic of Pavic's novels is mastery of form and language, brilliant metaphors, playfulness, and his interest in such basic philosophical questions as what is the truth, and how can it be obtained? "There are no strict divisions between Pavic's representations of reality," David A. Norris wrote in Contemporary World Writers (ed. by Tracy Chevalier, 1993) "His works demand, like all literature, that readers suspend belief and surrender themselves to the text. Paradoxically, Pavic's resistance to traditional generic classification is a recognition of their power." The magic of the narrative is taken to its ultimate conclusion in The Tale That Killed Emily Knorr (2005), in which Pavic imagines a tale that can kill and be killed.
Together with such writers as Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Italo Calvino, and Umberto Eco, Pavic charted new territories in modern fiction. The writer and literary critic Jasmina Mihajlovic has noted, that Dictionary of the Khazars, Landscape Painted with Tea, Inner Side of the Wind, and Last Love in Constantinople have characteristics of the hypertext, and they could be read most effectively if they were transferred into a hypertext format. Her view was shared by Robert Coover in his review of Dictionary of the Khazars. "Since the computer radical and prophet Ted Nelson first invented the word ''hypertext'' to describe such computer-driven nonsequential writing nearly a quarter of a century ago, there has been a steady, now rapid, growth of disciples to this newest sect of dream hunters. A new kind of coverless, interactive, expandable ''book'' is now being written; there are no doubt several out there in hyperspace right now; and ''Dictionary of the Khazars'' could easily take its place among them as inspired hackers, imitating Mr. Pavic's Father Theoctist Nikolsky, gleeful inventor of saints' lives, add their own entries, helping to fashion Adam Cadmon's body." (Robert Coover in The New York Times, November 20, 1988)
For further reading: "He Thinks the Way We Dream" by Robert Coover (1988, in New York Times Book Review, 20 Nov.); Razgovori sa Pavicem by Milos Jevtic (1990); Hazari ili Obnova vizantijskog romana by Ana omlo (1990); Hazarska prizma. Tumacenje proze Milorada Pavica by Jovan Delic (1991); Prilog za bibliografiju Milorada Pavica by Jasmina Mihajlovic (1991, pp. 231-305. Separately and as part of the book "An Anchoret in New York" in Collected Works, 1990); World Authors 1980-1985, ed. by Vineta Colby (1991); Prica o dusi i telu. Slojevi i znacenja u prozi Milorada Pavica by Jasmina Mihajlovic (1992); Contemporary World Writers, ed. by Tracy Chevalier (1993); Das historische und das fiktive im "Chasarischen Wörterbuch" von Milorad Pavic by Edeltraude Ehrlich (1994); The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, ed. by John Clute and John Grant (1997); Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers, ed. by David Pringle (1998); Encyclopedia of The Novel, ed. by Paul Schellinger (vol. 1, 1998); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (vol. 3, 1999)