Milorad Pavic and Hyperfiction

By Mihajlovic, Jasmina | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Milorad Pavic and Hyperfiction


Mihajlovic, Jasmina, The Review of Contemporary Fiction


Robert Coover, in his seminal essay "The End of Books" and in his larger article "Hyperfiction: Novels for the Computer,"(1) speaks about a phenomenon that appeared in America during the postmodern period and then spread to Europe and Japan. It is the new manner of fiction after the age of the printed book. It is not only a rejection of one technology, in this case that of printing, but also a radical change in the way literary works are created, published, read, and critiqued. Today a literary text need not be exclusively in the form of a printed book. It can be found on a diskette or on a compact disc (CD-ROM), and it can use all the possibilities of the computer medium for altering its form, creating new narratives, and changing its reception.

As the concept of the literary text changes to include the electronic text, a manner of reading and writing on a computer is developing which makes nonlinear and nonchronological narration possible, just as it was in the original manner of storytelling. In traditional oral literature the singers organize and link story fragments into a permanently movable whole that has neither a beginning nor an ending in the classical sense, and the text itself is subject to perpetual changes. Now at the end of the twentieth century, the life of the fictional text goes on in the simulated endlessness characteristic of the computer, in the form of an electronic text. This so-called "hypertext"(2) creates a network of multidirectional links among the various pieces of a text. The possibility of a literary work existing in many versions, as well the new layers of meaning within those new wholes created through the reader's digital (re)organization of the textual fragments, enables the reader, independently of the author, also to become a creator of the text. I go as far as to believe that many postmodern theoretical considerations have achieved practical realization now for the first time with the appearance of hypertext and its use in hyperfiction.

Of course, it is necessary to stress the fact that there now exist two kinds of literary works that can benefit from this technology: the first are those fiction works written directly for the computer, which cannot be transferred from it into print; the second are those printed works that already possess the structural features of hypertext. Only in the labyrinth of hyperspace can such works acquire a more adequate means for the reader to interpret thoroughly all meanings than would be possible in print. As for all the remaining works that have classically linear or chronological features, the transfer of the text from print to computer merely results in a rectilinear reading of the text from the screen.

Milorad Pavia's prose presents a good example of the second type of literary work. The so-called electronic writers consider him one of the predecessors of hyperfiction. Robert Coover says in this respect: "Of course, through print's long history, there have been countless strategies to counter the line's power, from marginalia and footnotes to the creative innovations of novelists like Lawrence Sterne, James Joyce, Raymond Queneau, Julio Cortazar, Italo Calvino and Milorad Pavic, not to exclude the form's father, Cervantes himself.(3)

The works of Milorad Pavic were understood in relation to the world of the computer even before the first emergence of hypertext literature, which took place around 1990 with the appearance of Afternoon, by Michael Joyce. In early responses to Dictionary of the Khazars (1984), even Pavic himself compared reading it with the principles of reading the computer language known as basic. These types of comparisons were heard rarely at first, and then more and more often. Immediately after the appearance of Knopf's edition of Dictionary of the Khazars in 1988, Michael Joyce tried to get in touch with Pavic. Patricia Serex called Dictionary of the Khazars, "A kind of the Iliad, something like a computerized Odyssey, an open, integral book.

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