Princess Ateh (from The Dictionary of the Khazars)

The Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic, was published in the UK some time around 1990. I heard of it first on some radio program that reviewed the book.  It was intriguing to me; the book was a dictionary and yet it was not, because it could be read as a story and read in many ways. I bought a copy, only to discover that there were two versions, a Male version and a Female version.

The book is beguiling and, like the Tales, very difficult to comprehend. It captured me with its poetry. Here is an excerpt:

To understand this excerpt you need to know that Princess Ateh had strange letters painted on her eyelids by blind handmaidens before she slept. These letters were lethal. If you read them, they killed you… They protected her from nighttime intruders.

It is known that Princess Ateh never managed to die. Nevertheless, a record of her death exists and is inscribed on a knife embellished with tiny holes. This isolated and not particularly plausible story is cited by Daubmannus, not, however, as a story about how Princess Ateh actually dies, but about how it could have happened had she been able to die at all. Just as wine does not turn the hair gray, so this story cannot cause anyone harm.  

The Fast Mirror and the Slow  

One Spring, Princess Ateh said: “I have grown accustomed to my thoughts, as to my dresses. They always have the same waistline, and I see them everywhere, even at crossroads. Worst of all, they make it impossible to see the crossroads anymore.”  

One day, hoping to amuse her, the princess’ servants brought her two mirrors. They were much like other Khazar mirrors. Both were made of shiny salt, but one was fast and the other was slow. Whatever the first mirror picked up, reflecting the world like an advance on the future, the slow mirror returned, settling the debt of the former, because it was slow in relation to the present as the other was fast.  

When they brought the mirrors to Princess Ateh, she was still in bed and the letters had not yet been washed off her eyelids. She saw herself in the mirrors with closed lids and died instantly. She vanished between two blinks of an eye, or better said, for the first time she read the lethal letters on her eyelids, because she had blinked the moment before and the moment after, and the mirrors had reflected it. She died, killed simultaneously by letters from both the past and future.

Strange as it may seem, this book eventually brought me back to reading The Tales.

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