Serbian Literature Between Aesthetics and Politics: Milorad Pavić’s Dictionary of the Khazars

Milica Mustur (Belgrado)

The “lexicon novel” Dictionary of the Khazars (Hazarski rečnik, 1984) by the Serbian writer Milorad Pavić and its translation into most of European languages mark the last great moment  in the history of Western European reception of Serbian literature. The remarkable success of the novel within a great readership went along with wide recognition by professional critics, who declared Pavić one of the leaders of postmodern literature and his Dictionary of the Khazars “the first novel of the 21st century”.

Those qualifications derived both from the novel’s plot and its – at the time – somewhat peculiar formal features. The Dictionary tells the story of the strange historical fate of the Khazars, respectively their disappearance from history after converting to a new religion under circumstances that allow only speculation. The novel formally imitates the structure of a lexicon, where narration is placed within encyclopedical entries. Furthermore, it is divided into three “books”, all of which are representing the sources on the Khazarian question from the viewpoint of one of the three Abrahamic religions – Chistianity, Judaism and Islam – all declaring to represent the truth by claiming the religious conversion of the Khazars for themselves.

Dealing with questions about the nature and the epistemological status of truth, Dictionary of the Khazars has been, among others, celebrated as a masterpiece of postmodern historical metafiction as well as a literary manifesto of religious tolerance. However, during the Civil War in Jugoslavia, Milorad Pavić’s work underwent a radical change in reception under direct influence of Western politics towards Serbia on literary criticism. Formerly praised as an author of religious tolerance, Pavić was all of a sudden morally stigmatized as a Serbian nationalist as one of his later novels was purposely misinterpreted as a symbolic representation of Serbian nationalist aspirations. Along with the mentioned novel, the once highly praised Dictionary of the Khazars and his author were expelled from the Western European literary consciousness.

Two main questions arise from the topic described: Can the shadow of politics hanging over the Western reception of Serbian literature ever be removed? Could the Dictionary of the Khazars with its fascinating and provocative focus on truth again become relevant in the context of a Western European cultural tradition, strongly determined by the discourse on truth and epistemology?