Dictionary of the Khazars: hypertext onstage


Following the translation of Dictionary of the Khazars into 73 foreign languages, it has now been translated into the most demanding and subtle language of all – the language of the theatre.

Sanja Domazet, Danas

Milorad Pavić’s 1984 work (translated to English in 1988) purports to be a reprint of a 1691 collection of fragments of history and legend surrounding an empire that rose and fell a thousand years ago in the region around the Black and Caspian Seas.


Dictionary of the Khazars is actually a hypertext fiction, oddly configured as a compendium of all that is known of the Khazars, a Turkish tribe that rose in the 2nd Century  from obscure origins and faded back into that obscurity before the end of the first milennium.   

The “novel,” such as it is, unfolds in different ways which depend upon how each reader responds to the notes at the end of each entry,  directing the reader to several other related entries, linked by various elements.

The single volume is divided into Red, Green and Yellow portions, each “Book:, covering much of the same material from varying perspectives of Christian, Islamic and Hebrew sources –mirroring and emphasizing differing perspectives on the world and the cosmos. The volume also comes in a Male and Female  versions, which differ from each other by only the addition or deletion of a single paragraph –a parody of differing perspectives on the same basic material.

Most of the narrative concerns the Khazar Polemic, a Dark Ages disputation of religious truth between a dervish, a rabbi and a monk (representatives of the Hebrew, Islamic and Christian faiths) which leads ultimately to the selection of one as the faith of the kaghans, the herditary leaders of the Khazars. 

However, the real charm of the book is in the fictive traditions and incidents that the author provides to delight the reader, without regard to their narrative function: A tradition that the parrots of the region speak the forgotten tongue of the Khazars,  a princess who is protected in her sleep by having her eyelids  marked with kabbalistic characters that would bring death to any who gazed upon them.

It doesn’t seem like the kind of material that suggests staging, but neither does it seem like that kind of material for a novel. So perhaps our concepts of literature, of theatre, can be adjusted to encompass the concept that order is imposed by the reader, by the audience, as French deconstructionist philosophers hold.

Tomaž Pandur, a director noted for operatic productions, mounted an adaptation of Pavic’s material in a 2002 production in Belgrade that made use of the book’s rich mix of the mundane and mystical. Productions in Prague, Augsburg and New York followed the next year, but there doesn’t seem to have been a West Coast premiere.

Perhaps an auteur director looking for truly original mythic material will bring this project to an enterprising theatre company on the Left Coast . Perhaps other hypertexts will make their way to the stage, an ideal place to explore the idea that each of us makes our own meaning from the world we see in front of us.

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