The OF Blog: Milorad Pavić, The Tale That Killed Emily Knorr

Monday, November 21, 2011

Milorad Pavić, The Tale That Killed Emily Knorr

But all this is just seemingly so.  The underwear is something completely different and did not serve the purpose of keeping the sultan warm, for there were those to make sure that the sultans were not cold.  This underwear is covered in the finest expensive embroidery in several colors.  But this, too, is just seemingly so.  For, nothing in this world is as it seems at first glance.  The embroidery is not embroidery at all in fact, but if you look closely and can read from right to left, you can decipher numerous verses upon it, lines from the Koran, formulas and curses meant to defend the sultan's spirit and body from the enemy, wounds, illness and accidents.  These writings, vows, mantras and latches, whatever you wish to call them, had the task of protecting the sultan's life and health from all kinds of mishaps, and the colors of the silk, or thread with which these writings "against evil spells" were woven, also had an important role.  Red was supposed to protect the sultan from unhappiness in love, green made sure that the path beneath his horse's hooves would be covered in grass, yellow guarded his heart against stabs from the left and purple against stabs from below.  Blue protected him from the sword, black from the arrow... (p. 11-12)

Storytelling can be a dangerous art.  From a simple snippet of a tale (true or not does not matter), the reader/listener can be sucked into a world in which the tale teller and not the reader/listener is in full control.  In passages such as the one quoted above, when a presumably simple "man with rosy cheeks" (we later learned he wrote some Italian book called Dicionario dei Khazari) recites, people like Emily Knorr die.  What power such tales must have, if they can influence people to commit suicide or die of heart attacks!

The Tale That Killed Emily Knorr is a bilingual Serbian/English tale that barely lasts 50 pages in translation, yet over the course of its six short chapters, we witness meditations on stories, on the beliefs that people have in the efficacy of the written charms (even today we see remnants of this in the signs that many families post in their homes regarding warmth and charity), and the power of words to create and transform images.  Like most fables, it has a certain charm to it, a sense that it is not the mystery that is important as much as it is what creates a mystery out of words that possesses our thoughts as we read it.

Milorad Pavić in his unusually constructed stories (ironically, the layout for this is one of the most traditional he ever employed) often sought to capture that juju that transforms vocalizations into powerful entities that could influence human thought and action.  Here in The Tale That Killed Emily Knorr he distills this in a deceptively simple tale which allows our thoughts to meander in daydreams as he largely succeeds in pulling off a literary sleight-of-hand of shifting our focus away from the death and toward the power of the tale.

Doubtless, there will be those who will find this tale to be lacking in plot or resolution.  Those dour readers will in their denial of the story only serve to reinforce the questions implied within the text, those regarding how do stories affect us and how do readers/listeners interpret and alter those "landscapes" that the author/storyteller presents for our consideration?  It is due to these raised (and not necessarily answered) questions that The Tale That Killed Emily Knorr bears a quaint charm that only improves upon subsequent re-reading.

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