dream hunters/catchers: don't rule out avantgarde fiction

Thu, 4 Aug 1994 21:56:41 EDT

from works of fiction, and in the present context I am thinking of a rather
avant-garde postmodernist work of fiction, adopted for commercial purposes
by merchants and fabricators of artifacts purported to have been Authentically
If this is the case here, it certainly is not the first such instance.

In 1989 Vintage Books published the English translation from the Serbo-
Croation of Dictionary of the Khazars, by Miroslav Pavic, which was published
in companion Male and Female editions.

(The difference between the two is confined to a single paragraph, which
the author graciously locates for the reader's convenience, in a scene set
at a [fictional] scholarly conference held in Istanbul in 1982, a contrivance
to put the three twentieth-century characters together in the same hotel so
that one murder and possibly two can take place. One is an Israeli woman, an
expert in the Christian Balkans; another, whom she hates for wounding her
husband in the 1967 war, is a Cairene expert on Medieval Judaica; and the third
is a Serbian archeologist who has newly excavated a site which may or may not
be attributed to the Khazars, a Turkish people ruling an empire between Volga
and Dniepr between early-seventh and mid-ninth c. AD: In the Male edition, the
Israeli reads the Hebrew text located by the Egyptian, properly scholarly-
evidentially minded. In the Female edition, she's been sexually drawn to the
Egyptian, and conflicted by sexual and emotional passions in everywhichway,
doesn't bother to read the text. Some would call this sexist essentialism, if
Pavic took the difference seriously, which is absurd to take for granted.)

The influences are Latin American Magical Realism and Umberto Eco semiolo-
gical fiction: The supernatural, demons especially, is all over the place, and
there are Spirits, evil and ghost, in scenes of love and sex, where I suppose
they'd belong. A legendary "Khazar Polemic," which I am certain is actually
believed by Jewish scholars to have taken place, with the outcome of conversion
of the Khazars to Judaism, is in the novel claimed to have been decided in
favor of Christianity in the "Christian Sources" section; of Islam, in the
"Islamic Sources"; and Judaism in the corresponding section. The date of the
alleged "Khazar Polemic" is given as a specific year in the seventh c., or the
eighth, or the ninth; the author's intent is your uncertainty, not merely about
the Khazars.
Many of the same characters appear in all three, appropriately cross-

All descriptions of the pre-conversion and even post-conversion (no matter
to what) Khazar society are absurd and bizarre. Social science and historiog-
raphy, ancient and modern, does not come off at all well. The pre-conversion
religion of the Khazars, protected by the simultaneously ethereal and sex-
crazed Princess Ateh, most notably (anyway, pretty much all you're told)
shamans, "Dream Hunters" or, sometimes, "Dream Catchers." These shamans are
the author's exploitation of the cult of the mystico-spiritual superiority of
the Primitive and Tribal almost to, or beyond (perhaps as the author's
intention) the point of parody; and "dream catchers" appear in the late-
seventeenth century parts of the story, as to vestigial Khazars (eg the hotel
waitress, Virginia Ateh, who is the witness at the trial of the Israeli and
swears the shot was fired by a demon in the guise of a small boy; the accused
confesses to murdering the Serbian at the very time the Egyptian is shot).

All this may be sheer coincidence, but Dictionary of the Khazars was a cult
novel in a major way, a great classic of Yugoslav high culture at a time of
vibrant intellectual life in yet-civilized Yugoslavia, a country which in my
opinion should have lasted; might have lasted but for Slobodan Milosevich.
What's the opposite of Founding Father?
Anyway, with the New Age getting more adept, as the Aging Process continues,
in scavenging the mystico-spiritual from wherever it lies, however you take the
latter word, and adapting it for niche markets, it's perfectly feasable that a
litcrit adept with a Thing for Native Americans might have lucked out in the
venture-capital artifacts manufacturing business; these days anything
Traditional in Central NAFTAland which isn't a Product is an Experience.

**** Capitalism notes. In Chicago there is a Thingie sorely missed in Stony
Brook, Woolworths. The public address system wished the Broad Masses of bargain
scavengers a "Good shopping Experience."

Daniel A. Foss