Monday, September 1, 2014

Princess Ateh

Milorad Pavic

(from “Dictionary of the Khazars”)


   At night she wore a single letter on each eyelid, inscribed as are those put on the eyelids of horses before a race. The letters came from the proscribed Khazar alphabet, in which each letter kills as soon as it is read. They were written by blind men, and the ladies-in-waiting shut their eyes when they attended to the princess in the morning, before her bath. Thus, she was protected from her enemies while she slept.

   One day, hoping to amuse her, the princess’ servants brought her two mirrors. They were much like other Khazar mirrors. Both were made of shiny salt, but one was fast and the other slow. Whatever the fast mirror picked up, reflecting the world like an advance on the future, the slow mirror returned, settling the debt of the former, because it was as slow in relation to the present as the other was fast.

   When they brought the mirrors to Princess Ateh, she was still in bed and the letters had not yet been washed off her eyelids. She saw herself in the mirrors with closed lids, and died instantly. She vanished between two blinks of the better, or better said, for the first time she read the lethal letters on her eyelids, because she had blinked the moment before and the moment after, and the mirrors had reflected it. She died, killed simultaneously by letters from both the past and the future.


   Pavic’s dictionary in the form of a novel (or, if you prefer, his novel in the disguise of a dictionary), is virtually unknown and unavailable in Britain or North America, perhaps not surprisingly, for it is a very European novel, one that prefers ideas to stories (yet employs stories as a vehicle for communicating those ideas), one that chooses metaphysical speculation over social comment (yet rarely misses an opportunity to indulge the latter), one that makes few concessions to the lazy reader (there is no “yet” to qualify this statement; on the contrary, indeed, it expects the reader to play as large an imaginative and intellectual part in the making of the book as has the author.) Ostensibly an historical account of the Khazars, an obscure Russian people who mysteriously vanished a millennium ago but whom Arthur Koestler believed to have been the lost, the thirteenth tribe of Israel, it tells their unknown history through Jewish, Muslim and Greco-Christian sources, each in disagreement with the other, each flawed, each inconsistent, each incomplete, each contradictory. The order in which the reader dips determines the nature of the book he reads, much as the time of day or the position on the hilltop where he placed his easel determined the landscapes of Cezanne. Thus, like a Book of Sand, this book is infinite – or, rather, its finitude is determined by the same law that determines, say, Fermat’s Last Theorem; but more so, because Fermat's Last Theorem does not offer a male and a female version, as Pavic does with the two editions of this book.

   There are three entries for Princess Ateh, one in each of the three sub-dictionaries (the Jewish, the Muslim, the Greco-Christian), but in none of them will you find the tale that I have repeated here. Following Pavic’s own advice to “use the right eye as a fork, the left as a knife, and toss the bones over your shoulder”, I have cannibalised the three texts, helping myself to a paragraph from each, and reconstituted them as you will read them here. It is not accurate as Khazar history – but then, nothing is. Nor should it carry Pavic’s name against its title – though there is no question that Pavic wrote every word of it. The tale is, nonetheless, a fiction. I am uncertain if the laws of copyright would declare its authorship as his or mine. 


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