Milorad Pavic: "He Thinks the Way We Dream"

By Gorup, Radmila Jovanovic | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Milorad Pavic: "He Thinks the Way We Dream"


Gorup, Radmila Jovanovic, The Review of Contemporary Fiction


When French and American critics, writing about Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars, wrote "We are all Khazars," they meant this as a paradigm for the troubled eighties, plagued by ecological pollution, nuclear menace, and the threat of a global loss of identity. Almost one decade later, with the author's country engulfed in a savage war, the same statement sounds even more prophetic.

With three novels published in the U.S., Milorad Pavic, Serbian poet and prose writer, university professor and expert on Serbian baroque and symbolism, translator, literary theoretician and member of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, remains primarily associated with his internationally acclaimed novel Dictionary of the Khazars. When a friend of mine from Philadelphia, who had been invited to attend a panel dedicated to Pavic, wanted to read a work by him, she first went to her college library. She did not find a single book by Pavic. She then went to Philadelphia's main public library, where she found only Dictionary of the Khazars. It is hoped that this issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction will correct this neglect and help assure for Milorad Pavic the readership he truly deserves.

Milorad Pavic was an accomplished scholar, poet and short-story writer when he burst onto the European literary scene with an extraordinary novel--Dictionary of the Khazars (1984). Western Europe, usually very responsive to literature coming from Eastern Europe, and generally from abroad, was unprepared for such an erudite author coming from what it considered the periphery of Western European civilization. Pavic, however, considers his background an asset. He credits his success as a writer and intellectual to two great; traditions of the territory of his origin: the Serbian oral literature which preserves the art of storytelling going back to Homer; and the Byzantine novel of myths and legends.

Pavic, together with some other Serbian writers (e.g., the poets Ivan Lalic and Miodrag Pavlovic, for example), has been endeavouring to re-establish contact with what they regard as their true spiritual and intellectual origin, the art of Byzantium. In his works Pavic includes folktales and legends, riddles and proverbs, historical documents and literary criticism, cookbooks and jokes, and much much more. Poet Charles Simic sees three sides of Pavic: "Pavic the Arabian Nights storyteller," Pavic the poet who seeks hidden relationships between unrelated things, and Pavic the comic who "thrives on mixing the spiritual and the sensual, the sacred and the profane."(1)

Pavic insists that he does not have a biography, just a bibliography, and that his books speak for him. When pressed to say who influenced him the most, he says that he learned a great deal from the ecclesiastic orators of the Serbian baroque period who were themselves influenced by both the European and Byzantine traditions and from whom he learned how to construct the sentence and "fight for each and every reader."

In an interview with the Greek journalist Thanassis Lallas, included in this issue, Pavic credits his ancestors for his present identity as a writer. "It was my ancestors who supported me each time I began writing something," says Pavic.

Pavic was born on 15 October 1929 in Belgrade. His father, a sculptor, came from an intellectual family which produced many writers. In the last two hundred years there was at least one Pavic writer in every other generation. Young Milorad was very close to his uncle Nikola, a poet who wrote in the Kajkavian dialect of Croatia. Pavic's mother was a professor of philosophy and an afecionado of Serbian and South Slavic oral tradition. Other family members demonstrated other artistic talents. The author's son Ivan is a painter.

Pavic started to write while in high school, but he soon abandoned it because his writing did not conform to the prescribed mode of writing of the time, social realism. …

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