A dictionary is a book that, while requiring little time every day, takes a lot of time through the years." So noted Milorad Pavic in his all-absorbing Dictionary of the Khazars (1982). This was no plain historical work about a vanquished 10th-century Caspian race. Subtitled "a lexicon novel in 100,000 words" it is divided into three sections, each arranged as a reference work, one overlapping with another so that time and space take further, even limitless twists across hundreds of years. It incorporates fable, myth, romance, a sabre manual, etymology, science, lute music, history – and purported history.
All this Pavic regarded as a form of autobiography. What's more, it appeared in "male" and "female" versions, which differed by one paragraph, almost making readers complicit in two deaths. To say any more would give the game away, but Pavic himself imagined readers chancing to meet, variant copies to hand, in a café, after which "I see how they lay their dinner out on top of the pillar box in the street and how they eat, embraced, sitting on their bicycles".
It was greeted internationally as post-modern, magic realist and, in Paris Match, as the first novel of the 21st century. It equally recalled Tristram Shandy and The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor, and anticipated David Lynch, while some call it the thinking man's The Name of the Rose. Either way, it is far from the social realism of post-war Belgrade.
Born there in 1929 ("sign Libra, Ascendant Scorpio, Aztec horoscope, Serpent"), Pavic came from a family of writers which went back several centuries, a trend bucked by his father, Zdenka, who became a sculptor and married a professor of philosophy, Vera. Pavic was always conscious of his Serbian ancestors' fate: in the 17th century they were compelled into adopting Roman Catholicism, from which they converted back to Orthodox Christianity; but they were left with an unsettled identity, a state which underpins his great novel.
In the Thirties, Pavic was greatly influenced by an uncle who was a poet, and delighted in learning French at Belgrade Grammar School; at the city's university he began to translate Pushkin. His inclinations, however, ill-suited officialdom's decrees: Serbian history, and Classical and Baroque literature, were "unsound" in Communist eyes.
He wrote little for a decade. Instead, married with two children, he had stints on Radio Belgrade and in a publishing house until, after gaining a PhD, he became a professor at the University of Novi Sad from 1974 to 1982. He then spent a decade at the University of Belgrade. During this time he wrote stories, poems and a history of Serbian literature, most of which went untranslated.
He had also worked for five years on his Dictionary of the Khazars. Its three sections (red, yellow, green) are each a version – Christian, Jewish, Muslim – of an encyclopaedic dictionary which purports to have been prepared by three 17th-century students. Each dictionary, in treating the same and similar subjects, incorporates a demon (including one whose breasts yield black milk), and, amid the limitless plots which derive from these triads, such sinister turns include one copy of the original, fugitive work containing poison. What's more, some of three 20th-century scholars, also of those three races, will meet a sorry end in 1982.
Such a narrative can be as readily browsed; the reader "can use his right eye as a fork, his left as a knife, and toss the bones over his shoulder," said Pavic. Suffused with dreams, often bringing reality in their wake, its observations include "a woman without a behind is like a village without a church", while "thoughts expire on contact with words as quickly as words expire on contact with thoughts". Elsewhere, "she kisses him quickly, so hastily that he accidentally feels her breasts, like a compote of pears under her dress" while, hanging outside a shop, some exotic fruit "releases voices that sound like a chaffinch". One paragraph is a story in itself: above water "he wrote in his cage by using his teeth to cut letters into the shell of a crab or a turtle, but since he did not know how to read what he had written, he dropped the animals back into the water, never knowing what messages he was sending out into the world... he died dreaming of salty female breasts in a gravy of saliva and heartache".
Inspired by a Swiss review of the novel, Pavic semi-revisited it in a more awkward play – Theatre Menu (1997) – which could be acted in nine forms. His novel Landscape Painted with Tea (1990) partly concerns wartime Belgrade and works in a crossword-puzzle format; with Last Love in Constaninople familiarity with Tarot cards is handy, and Inner Side of the Wind (1993) is a variant upon Hero and Leander, told from each viewpoint.
Although of no political party, on retirement in 1992 he was preoccupied by the Serbs' fate in a decade which, he felt, made them a further victim of Western Christianity. As for his novel, full of libraries, it has suffered from the collapse in English public-library stocks: dismayingly, there are no copies throughout Sussex.
Milorad Pavic, writer: born Belgrade 15 October 1929; married 1957 Brenka Basta (one son, one daughter); died Belgrade 30 November 2009.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies