The Dictionary of the Khazars is a meta-fiction novel, meaning it's a fiction within a fiction. The main point of the "dictionary" is to explain why the Khazar people disappeared after converting to either Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. Made up of 3 books, the novel consists of entries within each book, some repeated throughout, that define and tell stories about the particular subject. That's the uber-simple version.
Honestly, I hated the darn thing. However, reading the book enabled me to realize I dislike meta-fiction-- there's always a lesson to be learned! If you haven't read the book, reading my entry will seem weird, make absolutely no sense (not that reading it helps much), and it will all seem "out there". But let me assure you: I received a 98 on the assignment and my teacher mentioned how well I captured Pavic's style and tone. So there.
Van der Spaak, Manuil (1979 to ?)— Hebrew devil and the son of Mr. and Mrs.Van der Spaak, the former an excellent white tortoiseshell instrumentalist and the latter a talented left-handed painter, a renowned aristocratic Belgian family; innocent murderer of Dr. Abu Kabir Muawia. Referred to by some as “the most beautiful little boy ever seen,” Manuil possessed the loveliest face worn by a person in three centuries, with milk-white skin and eyes like opals under the water on a sunny day. The face resembled a porcelain mask meticulously painted by his mother from right to left so as not to smudge the delicate features of her precious little one. Though cut short, his black hair gave the distinct impression that it wanted to be longer and was missing its better half, amputated as a sacrifice to a fallen friend. As a boy and a man, Manuil loved all things red, blue, and yellow; during his infancy he ate only foods of those colors but expanded his palette at the age of one when he made a conscious decision to mature. Also, he had a particular affinity for chocolate milk—the darker the better—and enjoyed dipping soft bread into his ice-cold glass.
Reports from those close in proximity to the family say the boy had two thumbs and no pinkies on each hand. No matter the occasion, season, or time of day, Manuil was never seen without the black leather gloves which meant he never had paper cuts, and it was rumored he wore them while he slept. Because his mother painted on every surface within her reach, the gloves were covered with brightly painted red, blue, and yellow Hebrew symbols and ancient Khazar designs, and Manuil often used his gloves to interpret his dreams. Once, he dreamt of a deep blue river of tears flowing up a waterfall with purpose and into a gaping mouth at the edge of a red mountain. Along the river stood white reeds, tall and menacing, and he used a jagged dagger to cut them down and collect the milky sap from their stems to gather strength. As he reached the mountain, a man lie dying, blue blood spilling from his head and around his neck, a gorgeous smile of perfect teeth on his face, his black eyes reflecting time and the universe. Manuil knew at once that he had killed the man though he had no idea why; he closed the man’s cosmic eyes, laying a yellow Ornithogalum umbellatum across his mouth. When he awoke, the boy searched his gloves for the meaning of such a dream but found only the little yellow flower on the tip of his right index finger.
In 1982, at the age of almost four, Manuil went on holiday with his parents to Istanbul and stayed at the Kingston Hotel during the conference about cultures of the Black Sea. One particularly balmy morning as his family breakfasted in the sunny corner of the hotel courtyard, Manuil noticed a lovely middle-aged woman with red eyes enjoying mint tea in the windy corner of the courtyard and he so approached her. Though he recognized her, Dr. Schultz recognized nothing of the boy’s features but still found him pleasant enough when he kissed the ring finger of her left hand. Everyday Manuil visited the woman, bringing the doctor his zaddik to smoke, watching her mouth release swirls of sad smoke that spoke of the past as she touched his hair with evident tenderness like old friends reuniting after years of estrangement.
On an October day with a red sunrise and white-hot conviction, Mr. and Mrs. Van
der Spaak left their son in the courtyard to find his way in life. Sipping chocolate milk, Manuil watched as Dr. Schultz resumed her usual table while clutching her handbag so close she was almost suffocating it while perspiring uncontrollably. Shortly after her entrance, Dr. Abu Kabir Muawia approached the doctor, sat down, and handed her a stack of papers that loosened her grip on the purse and swept away the beads of sweat almost instantly. As he sipped the milk and watched Muawia talk with passion—though about what he couldn’t understand—Manuil noticed the gleam radiating from his mouth. Muawia’s perfect teeth telling perfect lies. Suddenly Schultz left and the sunlight reflected against her gun hidden underneath the scattered papers. Manuil failed to notice Virginia Ateh, the Kingston Hotel waitress, standing in the background.
This is the dialogue taken from her witness statement of Dr. Schultz’s trial:
At once, Manuil approached Dr. Muawia and he asked, “Why don’t you remove your gloves, Boy?”
“Because this place makes me sick,” the boy answered. The doctor wanted to know what Manuil was sick of and he proclaimed, “Of your democracy!”
“What kind of democracy?”
“The kind you and your ilk protect. Look at the results of this democracy of yours. Before, big nations used to oppress small nations. Now it’s the reverse. Now, in the name of democracy, small nations terrorize the big. Just look at the world around us. White America is afraid of blacks, the blacks are afraid of the Puerto Ricans, Jews of the
Palestinians, the Arabs of the Jews, the Serbs of the Albanians, the Chinese of the Vietnamese, the English of the Irish. Small fish are nibbling the ears of the big fish. Instead of minorities being terrorized, democracy has introduced a new fashion: now it’s the majority of the planet that’s being burdened…. Your democracy sucks…”
Unable to respond, Muawia watched as Manuil retrieved Dr. Schultz’s gun from underneath the Khazar papers and aimed.
“Open your mouth so your teeth won’t be ruined!” And Dr. Muawia did as he was told. Manuil heard a scream from inside the hotel then fired one shot precisely through Muawia’s mouth, keeping his smile in tact.
Dr. Abu Kabir Muawia’s murder remains unsolved while Dr. Schultz—the initial suspect—went to prison for the murder of Dr. Suk. During her six-year sentence, Manuil wrote Dr. Schultz faithfully with a hand and tone the prison guards assumed belonged to his father. They corresponded until her death in 1988 on the day of her release. Though circumstances surrounding her passing remain a mystery, it was not a surprise to Manuil who had dreamt it a few days before and used his gloves to realize her death. His final letter containing one sentence was found in her hand the day she died in prison:
When we meet again, I will no longer be a man and you will recognize only my gloved hands with two thumbs on either side.
Manuil Van der Spaak did not attend her funeral as he was at the Interpol station with his parents in Bulgaria, sipping chocolate milk and coloring triangles with red, yellow, and blue crayons and going outside the lines only when someone said, “Jew.” Mr. and Mrs. Van der Spaak were being held for questioning in the disappearance of Virginia Ateh—waitress at the Kingston Hotel and accuser of Manuil in the death of Dr. Muawia. Mr. Van der Spaak claimed acquaintance with Miss Ateh and that he remembered she always served his ku scaled and tuned. When asked if he had taken and murdered Miss Ateh as revenge for her accusations against Manuil, Mr. Van der Spaak replied, “There is no time for foolishness when it is lovely weather for reptilian music,” and began playing furiously on his white tortoiseshell. Mrs. Van der Spaak said nothing and painted everything.
Having no evidence or witness against them, the Van der Spaak family joined the public once again, and it was at this point that Manuil decided to break away from his parents and make a life of his own. He was seventy in dog years and his porcelain face had become lined with questionable deeds and stolen innocence. After wandering into Romania, Manuil found himself in Transylvania at the traveling stand of a blind fortune teller who offered him a fortune by way of a palm reading. Although Manuil wore gloves, his mother’s paintings enabled his hands to have lines of flesh and so he paid the teller his fee of blood and a lock of hair. His fortune is as follows:
Your days grow short. Your nights grow long. Peace comes to those who learn nothing and know everything. Follow your footsteps back to the beginning.
Walking backwards, Manuil left Romania, went through Bulgaria, and was last seen in Istanbul with his back to the Kingston Hotel.