Culture as Memory: On the Poetics of Milorad Pavic

By Burkhart, Dagmar | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Culture as Memory: On the Poetics of Milorad Pavic


Burkhart, Dagmar, The Review of Contemporary Fiction


"Here the world of the fantastic intruded into the world of the real," as it says at a central point in Jorge Luis Borges's Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. It is precisely this phenomenon of the increasing intrusion of the fantastic into mimetic-realistic narrative prose that characterizes the nonmimetic discourse of Serbian postmodernism. Milorad Pavic is, alongside Kis, Pekic, and younger authors such as Basara, Mitrovic, Kazimir, and Albahari, one of its principal representatives. Pavic began, as Sava Damjanov has stressed, "with stories which were closer to the original model of fantastic writing or to the field of pure fantasy," while in his novels he incorporates "literary discourse in a more complex linguistic-artistic structure (with marked postmodernist characteristics)." If this fantasy, which may be read as poetic-allegorical, is an important medium of postmodern Serbian literature yet is also different from that used in the literature of the ninteenth century or in modernism, so too does intertextuality undoubtedly present one of its further constitutive characteristics.

While in modernism, intertextual games and quotations already characterized literature, in postmodernism, literature, in Dietor Borchmeyer's words, "becomes an imaginary museum, a Babel of quotation, a permanent pla(y)giarism, to use a word-play of Raymond Federman (Take It or Leave It, 1976)." Baudrillard has introduced the term simulacrum for this literary manifestation of permanent imitation.

In the poetics of Milorad Pavic, who made his debut with the tellingly titled collection of poems Palimpsesti (1967), this extensive and intensive intertextuality is present at all levels of the work. Thus, on the one hand, there is a heteromedial intertextuality, that is to say, an intermedial interplay of graphic and verbal elements, and, on the other hand, a dominant isomedial or verbal intertextuality, the latter relating not only to structures, namely genres and poetics, but also to the motif and content levels through quotation, allusion, and paraphrase of other texts (or subtexts), both his own and others', by which the nature of this reference may be affirmative or may be dialogic (parodying, deconstructing, etc.). Therein a range of reference structures is discernible which extends through the lexicon, the crossword, disputation, dialogic narrative, parable and anecdote, to the historical novel, the crime thriller, and the love story or romantic novel, and which embraces a heterogeneity of reference texts, such as the Bible, ancient myths, Homer, Plato, Ovid, the Byzantine novel, apocrypha and holy legend, the Vita Constantini, the Talmud and the Koran, the traditions of the Kabbala, Balkan folklore and folk mythology, Ragusan baroque lyric and baroque epic, historiographical works, sermons of the Serbian baroque period (above all those of G. Venclovic), texts of the German Enlightenment and German romantic periods, texts by Poe, Pushkin, Gogol, Kafka, Borges, Eco, and Garcia Marquez, and narrative texts of contemporary Serbian authors such as Andric, Crnjanski, Selimovic, Kis, Tisma, Nenadic, and others. Thus it can be seen that Pavic in his writing technique, with his use of the nonmimetic fantastic and a radicalization of modernism's practice of allusion, follows not a principle of the dispersion of meaning but one of a multiplication of meaning (although on a deeply enigmatic level) and that he with his wholly polyphonic texts demonstrates the ars combinatoria of postmodernism as hardly any other writer has done.

It is characteristic of studies of Pavic that his intertextuality is treated too generally, indeed as I have just treated it in my listing of the most important subtexts. One reason that no one has yet expressed a comprehensive and detailed view of Pavic's intertextuality lies undoubtedly in the fact that his texts show such a compressed processing of subtexts that an exhaustive examination of the latter would fill whole volumes of analytical commentary. …

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