Milorad Pavic and Hyperfiction

by Jasmina Mihajlović

Robert Coover, well-known American writer and Professor at Brown University (New York), in his text The End of Books (The New York Times, June 21,1992) which may be called programmatic in a specific way, as well as in his larger article entitled Hyperficion – Novels for the Computer (The New York Times, August 29,1993) speaks about a phenomenon which appeared in America inside post modernism and spread in Europe and Japan.


It is a new way of the fiction after the book. It is rejection of not only one technology, in this case the printing, but also a radical change of the creation, publishing, reading and criticism concerning a literary work. Today a literary text need not exclusively be in a shape of a book. It can be found in multimedia, which is to say – on a compact disc (CD-ROM) and not between the covers of a book, and it uses all the possibilities of a computer medium for alternations of the form, for creations of new narrations and for the change of reception.

A literary text grows to become an electronic text – reading and writing develops on a computer which makes non-linear and non chronological narration possible just like the primary one, the one which is characteristic of oral literature, where rhapsods organize and link fragments into a permanently movable whole which has neither a classical beginning nor a classical end and where the text is subject to perpetual changes.

Now at the end of the 20th century, the life of the text of fiction goes on in simulated endlessness characteristic of the computer, in the hyperspace in which the technology of an electronic record, the so-called hypertext, gives an opportunity for manifold and many directional links among textual segments forming one specific net. (I am using the expression „hypertext“ in the meaning defined by Robert Coover – „Hypertext is not a system but a generic term, coined a quarter of a century ago by a computer populist, named Ted Nelson, to describe the writing done in the nonlinear or nonsequential space made possible by the computer. Moreover, unlike print text, hypertext provides multiple paths between text segments, now often called ‘lexias’ its networks of alternate routes (as opposed to print’s fixed unidirectional page-turning) hypertext presents a radically divergent technology, interactive and polivocal, favoring a plurality of discourses over definitive utterance and freeing the reader from domination by the author.“ (The New York Times, June 21,1992)

The creation of many variants and versions of the literary work as well of the new strata and fusions of the meaning wholes – but this time through the reader’s digital organization of the textual fragments – make it possible that even the reader, apart from the author, also becomes a creator of the text. I go as far as to believe that we can say that many postmodern theoretical considerations have also obtained a practical realization now for the first time with the appearance of hypertext and hyperfiction.

Of course it is necessary to stress the fact that there exist two kinds of literary creations the computer edition of which can create a desired effect, the first of them being those fiction works that have been written with an aim for a computer medium and cannot be transferred from a CD-ROM into a book. Apart from them, only the works printed in the classical way – but possessing in its tissue the written features of hypertext – can be presented in this way. It is exactly because only in such cases labyrinth hyperspace gives to such works a more adequate possibility to read all the letters and meanings than does a printed version. With all the remaining works that have classical linear-chronological features, a transfer to the computer would be reduced to a rectilinear reading of the text from the screen.


Milorad Pavic’s prose presents a good example of the latter kind of literary works. The so-called electronic writers consider this author one of the predecessors of hyperfiction. This is what Robert Coover says in this respect: „Of course, through print’s long history, there have been countless strategies to counter the line’s power, from marginalia and footnotes to the creative innovations of novelists like Laurence Sterne, James Joyce, Raymond Queneau, Julio Cortázar, Italo Calvino and Milorad Pavic, not to exclude the form’s father, Cervantes himself.“ (THE NEW YORK TIMES, June 21, 1992)

The works of Milorad Pavic were considered in relation with the world of the computer before the creation of hyperliterature (about 1990 with the appearance of the first novel on a diskette, Afternoon by Michael Joyce). In early responses to the reception of that work even Pavic himself compared the reading of his Dictionary of the Khazars (1984) with the principles of the BASIC. Those parallels were heard first of all rarely, and then more and more often. Immediately after the appearance of Knopf’s New York edition of the Dictionary of the Khazars in 1988, Michael Joyce tried to come in touch with Pavic. In her review of the Dictionary of the Khazars entitled Le livre du XXI siécle (24 Heurres, March 31,1988) Patricia Serex says: „A kind of the Iliad, something like a computerized Odyssey, an open, integral book.“ Robert Coover, while reviewing the Dictionary of the Khazars for The New York Times 1988, foretold a series of literary events that would happen only years later as well as the place of Pavic’s books in them: „Since the computer radical and prophet Ted Nelson first invented the word „hypertext“ to describe such computer-driven nonsequential writing nearly a quarter of a century ago, there has been a steady, now rapid, growth of disciples to this newest sect of dream hunters. A new kind of coverless, interactive, expandable „book“ is now being written; there are no doubt several out there in hyperspace right now; and Dictionary of the Khazars could easily take its place among them as inspired hackers…“ (He Thinks the Way We Dream, THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, November 20, 1988)

When, in 1987, I was publishing a text about the Iron Curtain, a collection of stories by Milorad Pavic,I expressed my opinion in the following way: „The structure of Pavic’s stories may be conditionally compared with a computer video game. The space in them appears unlimited, so that endlessness is simulated. With transition from one level to another, from above to under, from the left to the right, the puzzles are solved and knowledge is gathered, so that a whole could be made out of a mosaic, and that can be done only by the masters of the game.“ (KNJIZEVNOST, 1987, No.12, p.2108)

A person who had an access to the manuals on text processors may understand them, without much thinking ,also as one of the keys, mechanisms or directions for handling the books by Milorad Pavic. With their structure those books have introduced in the literature of today a system that completely corresponds with the basic system of work, not only of the text processor, but also of the computer in general; and this naturally happened apart from any premeditated, calculated and forcible intentions.

Here I would like to touch some of the features of the hypertext in Pavic’s prose corks and to investigate the possibility of the conversion of this books into the computer medium.


It seems to me that the story entitled Inverted Glove represents the best and the clearest patterns of some basic qualities of the hypertext. In the first part of the story the reader has an impression that it is a classically linear (I mean Pavic-like classical) story, with one-directional current. Meanwhile, from the middle of the story, story-telling goes backward towards the beginning. Thus the fragments in the second part, changing the places, remained linked as regards the sense, but they form a completely new whole with a different beginning and a different end, as well as a different course of the events. This is to say: the blocks of the text that, in the first part of the story, looked completely set in, now seem to have fled into the space and then to have set in again, just like the mixed cards, thus creating new links among themselves which has resulted in a change of the meaning of the whole.

Olivera Gavric-Pavic, M. Pavic’s portrait, oil-painting, 1996.

Having in view other stories we can follow other features of the hypertext, that can be (as we said here) linked with the principles of video-games. However, the most interesting thing is to watch the systems of ciclicalisation of Pavic’s stories, because they represent a step nearer to his novels. Just let us think of the collection Russian Greyhound (Borzoi), in the Epilogue of which the author declares that the two stories of the book are in such a mutual connection that „the question put in one story obtains the answer in the second, and if you read them together, they form a third story…“ and I would add a story in the inter-space.

In this way we come to the novels: Dictionary of the Khazars, Landscape Painted with Tea, Inner Side of the Wind and Last Love in Constantinople each of which, in its own way, can be considered as collections of cyclicised texts. Always an another method of in-setting has been used in them.

The links in that chain are in that much various and richer than those that can be created by the so-far-conceived patterns for literature in the hypertext fiction software so that we must necessarily put a question: what is the use of hyperfiction in the cases, outside the computer medium the works have been created that surpass it first of all as regards the content and meaning. The answer can be found, perhaps, in the fact that all the features of the Dictionary of the Khazars, Landscape Painted with Tea, Inner Side of the Wind, Last Love in Constantinople can be more effectively used up exactly in that medium; because it is obvious that their structure (a novel-lexicon, a crossword novel puzzle, a klepsydra novel and a tarot-novel) as well as the structure of some stories, has already started eating the printing technology and searching for a new living space in which it will be born again and incarnated in a certain new form.

What would a possible hypertext version of the Dictionary of the Khazars look like? The entries would form a movable net in the hyperspace, and the signs-leaders, i.e. the crucial points, the spots of junction, that would be the reader’s choice in his creation of the path of reading, would enable moving with various entries and exits, beginnings and ends. For instance: according to the alphabetic system, temporal segments, religious triads or by the way of any given word-signs. It is possible to follow up only referential signs themselves given in the printed version of the Dictionary of the Khazars (the cross, the star, the moon and the triangle) that already make possible leaps as regards sense and the creation of reader’s forking. This is to say that by means of a computer version of the novel it would be easier to carry out the system of linking the stories-entries; the leaps would be made possible without the painstaking turning of the pages with several fingers kept inside the book, without pieces of paper put between the pages and without the crossed out entries in the content that have been read, and so on. This would be applicable to all the levels starting from the most concrete ones up to the most abstract. Also, there exists the possibility of storing the covered path of the reading, so that the reader can memorize his creation of the read version, to fix his personal reception of the novel and various organizations of the sense in fragments. Likely there exists a certain huge but final number of the possible combinations of entries, but it is not of essential importance. Important is the following: a transfer of a book, such as the Dictionary of the Khazars into a computer medium – which gives us such chances of combining fragments of the text – would provide us with more efficient possibilities for almost all the strata of this work to be read than does the classical reading from the book. Some of the entries could be arranged visually, whether by animation or by the way of a film, and some in sound (what would be wrong if some were arranged so that we hear music created by Shaitan’s Fingering?). The reader’s creativeness would be made possible in more directions, and hypermedia, that three-dimensional representation of the text, that spacial text, would add to the receptional impression by extending it into more senses.

The scheme and the method of transposing the Landscape Painted with Tea into the computer medium seem to have been already given at the beginning of the content in A Novel for Crossword Fans and in the author’s directions (How to solve this book across, How to solve this book down).I believe that this work is the most simple work to be transferred into a hypertext format exactly because of the already mentioned directions that clearly point out to the wholes: with the themes, with characters, with the events, with the love stories, etc. Apart from the different distribution of the segments of the text and also apart from setting up new ties and meanings among themselves, the reader could naturally, as one can do in the book itself, influence the fates of the characters changing the beginning and the end of the novel.

The most complex would be the realization of such a process with Inner Side of the Wind, at last I think so, because the ties, marks and nets existing between Hero’s and Leander’s story are so subtle and not defined on the surface of the text or on the level of the novel’s structure, so it would take an exceptionally sophisticated software pattern and even then the big bulk of meanings would remain hanging in the interspace. Which, in fact, is an advantage. While analyzing the novel I had practical problems in catching a thread, for instance on Leander’s side, and finding it (even upside-down) in Hero’s tale, and to connect them and unite them. Those threads kept on multiplying so much ,that in a moment, I wished for an index of the words-bucklers, or personal names or of any signs connecting the two stories, so that I might follow them taken so separately in both halves end in both sexes of the book. To undertake such an enterprise I would doubtlessly need a computer that would enable me to follow the segments of the parallel texts on the screen.

Pavic’s play, Forever and A Day, with its subtitle, Theatre Menu (here I would like to remind the reader that the word „menu“, in the computer terminology already points to the possibility of a choice) is composed in such a way that it has three mutually exchangeable beginnings or Starters, three ends or Desserts and a central part or Main Course around which these beginnings and ends are rotating, thus forming with them, and among themselves most different ties. They compose at least nine different versions; each of them makes a separate whole for itself. It is on the reader-spectator, a theatre director and the troupe to decide which of the variants they will chose and what end to take: a happyend, tragical ending or an ecological end. Perhaps we might say that Forever and A Day is a hyperplay. It falls into that group of the texts that are not reversible, namely: cannot be printed in a book in a adequate way, because the mutual interchange ability of the beginning, and of the ends in the book cannot be represented without imposing a chronological order on it (for instance: I starter, II starter…). The main characteristics of a hyperplay are kept by Pavic’s drama even when it is transposed into the theatre medium which, in this case, is already a simultaneous happening in the real space of different or the same theaters, similar to the simulated hyperspace of the computer. Such a structure enables the spectator to see the same middle part in a new way many times, because the opening sections (Starters) and closing sections (Desserts) realized through such a procedure always give a different meaning to the same central text.

A new novel by Milorad Pavic – Last Love in Constantinople (1994), with its subtitle, Handbook for Fortune-telling consists of 22 (0 – 21) chapters. The chapters bear the names of the tarot cards, or more precisely: of the „Major Arcana“ (or the Great Secret).The book is a unique novel-interpretation of the tarot cards, a revived tarot cards’ fiction in which each card has become a separate tale, because, at the deep level, each chapter corresponds with the basic meaning and symbolism of each separate card. The readers of the Last Love in Constantinople will be moving through the novel from the beginning towards the end step by step, but when they close book they will be able to open the cards that go with it, to set them down on the table and read their fortune jumping from one card to the other looking at the corresponding chapters and now reading them in a new way, as keys for fortune telling. Therefore here again we have two levels of reading: the first of them being, we would say, a classical way, and the second level of reading the added one, the reading of the reader’s own fortune taken separately. The book, as the suggested pattern, as a handbook for fortune-telling, in its second degree of reading, enters life itself and mixes with it thus enabling even a segmentary reading of the text and a reading of the text in the second key different to the transparent side of the given model as a level of a romanesque happening. It is easy to imagine Pavic’s tarot-novel in a computer version as one more in the series of those video-games with cards which fill computer programmes all the world around. With one thing more: in this case a text of an entire novel included in the game would go with the cards.

It seems that an important turn and revolution has happened in the literature of the 20ieth century with the appearance of the literary works that have characteristics of the hypertext as well as with the transition of fiction into a new technology, so that literature can be divided into two currents. First of them being the non interactive and the second – the interactive writings, so that the future of fiction lies in this key.