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I discovered Milorad Pavić’sDictionary of the Khazars‘ through a friend who highly recommended it.

The book talks about the history of a people called the Khazars who according to the book lived somewhere between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. It focuses mostly on one event which was significant in Khazar history – when the Khazar king invited a representative each of the three major religions and asked them to interpret his dream and depending on which religion gave the most convincing interpretation, he and his people converted to that religion. After this event, the Khazars mostly disappeared from history. The book has three parts describing the events from three different points of view – christian, islamic and jewish.

The book is structured as a dictionary or a lexicon. So, it has three dictionaries / lexicons inside. As the author describes in his introduction, the book can be read in different ways – reading it traditionally from the beginning to the end, or picking up a random entry and exploring further, jumping to other entries using the links provided, or reading a particular entry in one part of the book (for example the christian part) and then reading the entry on the same topic in another part (for example the islamic part). In this format, the book makes me think of Julio Cortázar’s ‘Hopscotch’, but it takes ‘hoptscotching’ to another level.

Though the book looks like a dictionary, it does tell some kind of overall story. The entries in it are all connected, and things are tied up in the end in the appendix. There are, of course, some open questions still at the end. Some entries are short and comprise just a paragraph while other entries are long and run to many pages, sometimes even to the length of a short story. The longer entries were the most interesting to me. One of my favourites was about Avram Brankovich, which was around thirty four pages long. It had history, magic, fantasy, mystery, a love story, war. It was amazing that the author has managed to squeeze in so much into those pages. It was a 34-page epic.

The book feels like a combination of Borges, Umberto Eco and the Arabian Nights combined together, with Julio Cortázar’s ‘Hopscotch’ style thrown in. Because there are three different perspectives of the story which are narrated, we also see some ‘Rashomon’ thrown in, as we wonder what actually happened, and which is the real version of the truth. To give you a flavour of a Borges type story in the book, I’ll share this passage.

“After dining…he would go to the long-unopened rooms of his father’s house, where deep into the night he would leaf through English and French newspapers printed in Alexandria at the end of the 19th century. Crouching on his heels…he would read the papers with thirsty interest, because they could have nothing to do with him. The advertisements were ideal for this purpose. Night after night he pored over advertisements put in the papers by people who had long since died; offers that were now meaningless glistened in a dust that was older than he…One evening in 1971…Dr Muawia sat down and answered an advertisement from 1896. He carefully wrote out the name and address – an Alexandria street he was not sure still existed – and put his reply in the mail. From then on, every evening, he would answer another ad from the end of the 19th century. Piles of letters were sent out into the unknown. Then one morning the first reply arrived.”

To find out what happened after that, you have to read the story 😊

I’ve never read a lexicon type novel before, though I’ve heard of a few like Xiaolu Guo’s ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers’, David Levithan’s ‘The Lover’s Dictionary’ and, of course, Roland Barthes‘ famous ‘A Lover’s Discourse’ (which I think is not a novel). I’ve always wondered how a lexicon type novel will work. Going by the experience of reading Milorad Pavić’s book, I would say it works pretty well.

The book comes in two editions, the female edition and the male edition. The description at the bottom of the book says that the two editions are nearly identical, except for one crucial passage. Sometimes a single word, a single sentence, or even a punctuation mark placed in the right spot, can change a story dramatically. So, I decided to get both versions of the book. I read the female edition first and then went and compared it with the male edition, especially that particular passage which was different. That passage was different, but it didn’t seem to alter the story much. Not at all, actually. I have to take the two editions again and read those two passages again in the calm light of day tomorrow and see whether I am able to get some insight. Maybe, I’ll be able to see some magic then.

Dictionary of the Khazars‘ came out in English translation in the late 1980s, and got rave reviews at that time. Since then it has slid into obscurity, though occasionally it appears in ‘Best Books’ lists. Milorad Pavić is a virtually unknown name now outside the former Yugoslavia region. It is sad, because this book is wonderful, and Pavić is a brilliant writer. I loved the inventive structure of the book and I am glad I read it. After this book, he went on to write other books with similar experimental structures. One of those books comes with a pack of tarot cards, and the reader is supposed to pick a tarot card randomly and read the chapter in the book corresponding to it, and continue reading the book in that vein. That is crazy even for Milorad Pavić and I want to find out how he pulled that off 😊

A book like ‘Dictionary of the Khazars‘ is a rare thing these days. Literary fiction these days touches mostly on contemporary issues and a book which talks about the history of a probably fictional community which lived a thousand years back, a book which is structured like a lexicon where one can’t see the beginning or the end, where this open structure demands effort from the reader, an effort which may or may not deliver tangible gains for the reader other than a pleasurable reading experience – this book will probably not get published today. So, I am glad that this book got published when it was, and it continues to exist today.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book. There were so many of them in the book.

“I can say that he is a person who tends to his future like a garden with special attention and zeal. He is not one of those who will journey through life on the run. He settles his future very slowly and conscientiously. He uncovers it piece by piece, like an unknown shore; first he clears it, then he builds on the best site, and finally he rearranges the objects inside at great length. He tries not to let his future slow down its pace and growth, but he also takes care not to rush ahead of it. It is a kind of race : the quickest is the loser. At present, Kyr Avram’s future is like a garden where a seed has already been planted, but only he knows what will sprout.”

“They had stumbled upon an inn; darkness was falling in reddish flakes, and Masudi was breathing deeply on his bed. His own body looked to him like a ship riding the waves. Somebody in the next room was playing the lute. Later, Anatolian lute players would tell the legend of that night and that music. Masudi immediately recognized the lute as an exquisite specimen. It was made from the wood of a tree that had not been felled with an ax, so the sound in the wood had not been killed. Moreover, it had been found in some high country, where the sound of water does not reach the woods. And, finally, the belly of the instrument was made not of wood but of some kind of animal matter. Masudi could tell the difference, just as wine drinkers know the difference between inebriation on white wine and on red. Masudi recognized the melody the unknown musician was playing; it was an extremely rare tune, and he was surprised to hear this particular song in such an out-of-the-way place. There was an extremely difficult section in this song, and in the days when he had still played the lute, Masudi had devised a special fingering for it, one that was used widely by lute players. However, the anonymous player was using another, still better fingering; Masudi could not figure out what it was, could not find the key to it. He was stunned. He waited for the section to come around again, and when it did he finally understood. Instead of ten, the player was using eleven fingers for that section. Masudi knew now that it was the shaitan playing, because the devil uses his ten fingers and tail to play.”

“…he began passing the time by forgetting his first love – music. He forgot not song by song, but piece by piece of these songs. First to fade from his memory were the lowest tones; the wave of oblivion rose like the tide to ever-higher sounds; then the flesh of the songs vanished and all that was left was the skeleton of their rhythm. Finally he began forgetting his Khazar notes, word by word, and was not too sad when one of Brankovich’s servants tossed his dictionary into the fire….”

“The translation was faithful when ben Tibbon was in love with his betrothed, good when he was angry, wordy if the winds blew, profound in winter, expository and paraphrased if it rained, and wrong if he was happy. When he finished a chapter, Tibbon would do as the ancient Alexandrian translators of the Bible had done – he would have someone read him the translation while walking away from him, and Tibbon would stand still and listen. With distance, parts of the text were lost in the wind and around corners, the rest echoing back through the bushes and trees; screened by doors and railings, it shed nouns and vowels, tripped on stairs, and finally, having begun as a male voice, would end its journey as a female voice, with only verbs and numbers still audible in the distance. Then, when the reader returned, the entire process would be reversed, and Tibbon would correct the translation on the basis of the impressions he had derived from this reading walk.”

Have you read ‘Dictionary of the Khazars‘? What do you think about it?

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After reading Jelena Lengold’s wonderful short story collection ‘Fairground Magician‘, I wanted to explore more of her work. The only other book of hers available in English translation was her novel ‘Baltimore‘. So I decided to read that.

Baltimore‘ starts with our narrator, who is a forty-something woman living in Belgrade, looking at her computer everyday afternoon. She has somehow managed to hook up to a camera in Baltimore, Maryland. And she waits for a young man, who comes at a specific time everyday, and waits for the bus, and boards it when it arrives. She makes up imaginary stories about him and even has a name for him. The second part of the chapter is about a woman who is of similar age, who meets her therapist and talks about her problems. We are taken deeply into this therapy session during this section. Both these women look like the same person – the voice is similar, their age is similar, their moms look similar. So we conclude, it is the same person. The first section of a chapter sometimes assumes a Dostoevskian shape. Our narrator shares her thoughts on life, which was one of my favourite parts of the book. She then proceeds to describe events from her life which serve as examples which prove the truth of her views on life. I loved this structure. In one of these chapters, the narrator talks about how once she stopped going to work, became silent and refused to talk to anyone, but did the household chores and kept things running, and every morning, after her husband went to work, she took a book and went to a park and read for most of the day (sometimes she went to the park to crochet and watch children play) and how it made her happy, while her family thought that it was strange and she was not well. I loved that chapter and it made me smile, because I did that once. I didn’t go silent, but I quit my job and went to the cafe in the morning and read for the whole day there. I carried this on for a while, and I loved it and it made me happy, but others thought it strange. Towards the end of the book, all the different story strands come together (or do they? You have to read the book to find out 😊) and there is even a surprise (it was a surprise atleast to me), and the ending was interesting.

Baltimore‘ had everything that Jelena Lengold’s readers look forward to, in her stories – a little dreamy surrealism, the occasional erotica, a kick-ass main character who speaks her mind (the book starts with these lines – “Let’s get something clear first : If this is going to be one of those stories in which everyone is nice and polite, then we’d better stop now. I would like to tell you everything about everything, and there is so much to say. You get that, don’t you? When you want to say it all, not everyone can be pleasant and polite. Least of all me.” How can we not fall in love with the narrator after reading that?), the profound commentary on contemporary life which is almost Dostoevskian in depth, and lots of quotable passages. I enjoyed reading it.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“I don’t know exactly when I made the decision not to have children. Or if it even was a decision or just one of those things you keep putting off indefinitely, knowing full well the time that you have is limited. Maybe only fifteen, twenty years at the most. And then, you suddenly realize that the decision is no longer up to you. You definitely can’t have them, even if you wanted to. Stories like: A woman in India gave birth at the age of sixty! Both mother and infant are healthy and doing fine…. You somehow know this doesn’t apply to you and that this is just a newspaper article. Was this another one of those decisions I tend to make for the sole purpose of making myself feel bad? Either way, that’s how it turned out. It’s not that bad for now. We have our time. And time is one of the rare things a person can actually have. We have our afternoons and our weekends. We have order in our kitchen and neatly stacked shelves. We never had to use the washing machine twice a day because of dirty diapers. Nor did we have to get out of bed ten times during the night. You don’t think that’s really a plus? Okay. Maybe you’re right. I’m just presenting my arguments. Your family and friends resign themselves to the idea when you reach your late thirties. This is when they definitely lose all hope. But, there are always those times when you need to get your hair done. In hair salons, most of the talk is about children. Photographs are taken out. Pregnant women get their hair done out of turn. There’s mention of C-sections, pelvic births, measles, baby-teeth are shown around, and sometimes even the children are brought in to get their hair cut with their mothers, at which time we all have to sigh and cry oh, he’s so cute and swear the child is the spitting image of its mother. I’ve yet to see a woman who comes into a salon and talks about her ill mannered, full-grown child. I’ve never heard a woman talk about how her son had to repeat a grade, as she was getting a perm. Or how he robbed a corner store. Or how he started taking drugs. Or how he beat up a neighbor. Or how he can’t get into college. Or how he moved to another continent and calls only once a year, just to ask for money. In a hair salon, children exist solely in their angelic form. A form that only gives rise to plain, unadulterated envy. A form which makes you want to get out of there, with the curlers still in your hair, but not before you apologize to everyone for being there, even though you’re not worthy of their company. Because they, these women, know something that you don’t. And they have felt something you never will. They are a family. You are a couple, at the most.”

Have you read ‘Baltimore‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Jelena Lengold’sFairground Magician‘ by pure accident. It was in the list of titles mentioned in the back of another book, with a brief description. I like discovering new books like this and as this was a collection of short stories, I thought I’ll give it a try. I’m glad I did.

Fairground Magician‘ has thirteen short stories. There are different kinds of short stories in it – there are stories about love, loss, family. There is also fantasy and science fiction. There are a couple of erotic stories. There is also one story about a cat which is very beautiful. Most of the stories have brilliant first paragraphs which pull you into the story and never let you go. There were beautiful passages in every story, even in stories which were not necessarily my favourites. In one story called ‘Nosedive‘ there is a description of domestic intimacy which is one of the most beautiful descriptions I’ve ever read. It even made me smile. In another story ‘Wanderings‘, which is a cat story, there is a beautiful description about the narrator and her cat. These were two of my favourite passages from the book. I’m sharing them below. Do tell me if you like them. I enjoyed reading most of the stories in the book. One of the erotic stories didn’t work for me, but readers who enjoy literary erotic stories might love it. It was beautifully written with just one long sentence. Atleast half of the stories were absolute favourites for me – they gave me pleasure and joy from the first sentence, and gave me lots of goosebumps till the end. One of the stories ‘Senka‘ even made me happy at the end and I’m thankful to the author for that.

I loved Jelena Lengold’s short story collection. It is one of my favourites of the year. One of the great things about the past one-and-a-half months has been discovering great short story writers from the ex-Yugoslavia region, most of them women. First it was Asja Bakić, and then it was Miljenko Jergović, and then it was Alma Lazarevska. And now I’ve discovered Jelena Jengold, and I am amazed by the richness of these short stories. Alma Lazarevska said in an interview that she prefers writing and reading short stories. I’m wondering whether the writing part is true for many of the writers from the region. It appears that the concentration of short story talent here is mind boggling. I’ve never discovered so many favourite short story writers in such a short span of time. Short stories are a tricky literary form and pulling it off with one great short story after another (like Jelena Lengold has done in this collection and others have done in the other collections I’ve read) is extremely hard. But these writers seem to have pulled off the impossible.

I’m sharing three of my favourite excerpts from the book below. Hope you like them.

From ‘Nosedive

“My husband insisted on having his own towel. I do not know whether this fact explains anything. Sometimes I would try to substitute my own towel, by using various little subterfuges. For instance, I would say that I had washed all the towels and there was only one left. Or that we were just about to go away and there was no point in dirtying so much clean laundry. Sometimes I would even hang my towel, which I had only used once, on the hook where he usually put his. But none of that helped. Quietly, without a word of protest, without expressing his wishes or displeasure out loud, he would find a clean towel and when I followed him into the bathroom later I would always find that same, definitive sign of the separation of our bodies. I was not able to understand this. There are countless places on our bodies where we touch one another, kiss and lick, but after all of that we went to wash it all off ourselves, he would always need to prevent one single dead cell from my skin from crossing onto his. I do not know exactly how to say at what moment, after so many years of shared life, I began to believe that I would fall in love, irrevocably and headlong, with the first person who would want to rub himself dry with my towel. The towel that had just wiped my stomach and my arse; that had been drawn between my legs and, possibly, still had a moist hair on it. Someone for whom something like that would be quite natural.”

From ‘Wanderings

“…she looked back at Lola, who was now lying perfectly peacefully on his shabby blanket, blinking at her with his yellow eyes. She knew he would soon fall asleep and that he would then sleep for hours. That is how it always was. People never sleep so tranquilly, she thought with a hint of envy. Not even as children. Even then, all kinds of monsters come to them in their sleep. But Lola slept without a care in the world. You could just make out his breathing, the rhythmic rising and falling of his stomach. Sometimes an ear would twitch, at a fly or bug. Sometimes, without opening his eyes, he would get up, stretch his back, change his position and carry on sleeping. And that was all. He had no worries. He did not think about what had happened the previous day, he had no plans of any kind, he was not tormented by envy, he had no ambitions, he did not know anxiety. But who knows, she thought, perhaps I am wrong; perhaps he too has his feline worries? But still, this idea seemed hardly likely. Lola, asleep like this, seemed the very picture of absolute tranquillity. Sated, washed and carefree. Perfectly safe in his garden. She wondered whether he had any conception of what safety was. Or did he know only fear, the moment he felt it. Watching the cat always soothed her in some strange way. She liked sitting beside him, sleeping beside him, watching a film beside him, eating when he ate, reading a book while he dozed with his head on her slippers, in a word – she liked it when the cat was here, in her field of vision.”

From ‘Aurora Borealis

“…with his elbows on the table, he tried to think what would be more sensible: to have a shower or make a coffee. The coffee was essential to give him the energy for a shower, but equally, a shower was an essential precondition for making coffee. How can I decide, he wondered. What if I never decide and stay forever at the table, immobilised by my dilemma? What if I never do summon up the energy to do either of these two things? Then he thought that it wasn’t all that important, after all. He had already made all the important wrong decisions. He had made them with incredible ease. With an absolute lack of awareness that every detail, even the slightest, had its own weight.”

Have you read ‘Fairground Magician‘? What do you think about it?

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Marija Knežević is a Serbian poet and writer and ‘Ekaterini‘ is the only book of hers which has been translated into English.

This book tells the story of Ekaterini, the title character, and is narrated by Ekaterini’s granddaughter. The story starts at around the beginning of the twentieth century and ends at the dawn of the twenty-first. Ekaterini is a greek girl. The story starts when she is young and how during the First World War her family falls into bad times. Ekaterini goes to work and it looks like she might get a measure of independence, but things don’t work that way. Soon a young man falls in love with her, and Ekaterini’s family likes him, but when they discover that he is not Orthodox Christian but Catholic, they distance themselves from him. When the young man discovers that this is the reason for his proposal being rejected, he feels that this is a minor thing, and he changes his religion and becomes an Orthodox Christian. Ekaterini gets married to him, and later because of another war, she has to move out of Greece and move to Yugoslavia, where her husband is from. The place is new, the people are new, she doesn’t know the language. What happens to her as she navigates these big changes in her life, and how it mirrors the history of her adopted country is told in the rest of the story.

I enjoyed reading ‘Ekaterini‘. How a Greek woman moves to a new country and becomes Yugoslavian is very beautifully told in the book. The story made me think of Miljenko Jergović’sKin‘, because in that book Miljenko Jergović talks about his great grandfather who was German and lived in Bosnia. I also loved the way the book describes how historical happenings impact Ekaterini’s life and the life of her children and grandchildren. There are beautiful scenes which describe the relationship between a mother and her daughters and later a grandmother and her granddaughter. It made me smile to read how a woman who was tough on her own daughters, loves her granddaughter unconditionally and inspires her granddaughter to be a free spirit and even encourages rebellion 😊 There is also a beautiful scene which describes a father’s love for his daughters which I loved.

Marija Knežević’s prose is pleasant to read and there are many beautiful passages. I’m sharing some of them below.

“Lucija adored her father. For her, he was all-powerful and yet tender; he’d sit her on his knee and sing her songs, and he also taught her to read and write. She remembers well the big box he brought home after one of his wholesale shopping days. He put it in the children’s room, called Lucija and Ljubica and, beaming with joy, full of that anticipation which is the greatest pleasure for those who like to please others, watched their astonished reactions when he lifted the lid. The box was full to the top with stationery. The girls were speechless with amazement. They saw all these things for the first time. They didn’t know if they were enchanted by the exercise books, rubbers, pencils and rulers per se, or by the sheer quantity of stationery, which would surely last them into their high-school days.”

“Various things can give us a sense of security: family, a beloved being or beings, customs whose repetition is reassuring. Some find calm in a comfortable life with possessions and a full house, others in the opportunity to roam and wander free. Peace can certainly play that role too, in the long or short pauses between wars. As can hard times which could easily have been the end of us, but which we survived, and become the strongest foundations of all to have been invented. They’re like wisdom after a shipwreck for the survivors, in a life which in Serbian we’d call ‘a gift’. For some, it’s enough to hear just one ‘I love you’, se agapo.”

“The sun shone in through the freshly cleaned windows and she was delighted with the day’s efforts. As if there was no glass; not a fleck to be seen! But the rays wandered around the room and played with the specks of dust, those irrepressible thousands of particles which eluded both mop and rag. She blew out smoke and began to get annoyed. This blasted dust! You go to so much effort and the room still isn’t immaculate.”

“Our first and very major limitation is that we don’t know what it was like to be born. From that very first moment on, we depend on other people’s versions and have no way of learning the truth. Everyone talks about how they felt; no one even thinks that we might have felt something at the time too, let alone what, although we were the cause of all those manifestations of happiness, excitement, fear, inebriation and sobering-up because of the birth of a child.”

“Ekaterini sat peacefully, looking at the potted basil for a while, or the cat slinking around the house, or the kids with beach balls and underwater goggles; she heard their chirpy little voices saying thalassa, the sea, and gazed with the same calm at her toenails as at her memories which rose and ebbed away again like gentle tides. She engaged with every instant of the scenes around her and inside her. She spoke to a butterfly, the dripping tap in the courtyard, aeroplanes in the sky, or Lucija. Once again she was able to hear several voices at the same time – precisely because she didn’t have to. She didn’t have to do anything. There’s no word for that individual feeling of existence in its totality, when you have the good fortune of feeling everything and all at once. Just as living abroad is impossible to explain. Foreigners just hope they will live to experience this some day, and in this way they really reconcile themselves; all their life they reconcile themselves with the truth that home now only exists in their jumbled, nomadic memory: a memory maintained by fantasy – often an outright invention – and succoured by the sweetness of victory greater than that of any battle when we manage to convince friends and family that things were exactly as we said. Nomads live on stories. Only in stories do they feel they exist. Ekaterini was finally able to abandon herself to her senses. And she listened to the language like a cherished melody, near and dear but hummed by someone else.”

“I felt immeasurable pain, she – emptiness. The former is bearable but the latter cannot be compensated for, like the deaths of people close to us, which the poet Marina Tsvetayeva speaks of after the poignant word ‘Be!’. When someone dies with whom your life has been fulfilled, she says, you miss them, but they’re still there; they’re not sundered from you because you feel their presence. But when someone dies with whom your life was unfulfilled, there remains only inconsolable sadness.”

I’m glad I discovered ‘Ekaterini‘. Hoping to read more of Marija Knežević’s work.

Have you read ‘Ekaterini‘? What do you think about it?

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