Jasmina Mihajlović

Last Love in Constantinople

A Tarot– Novel by Milorad Pavić

A novel by Milorad Pavić, 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) which is used for fortune-telling and the deepest origin of which is connected with the Eleusinian mysteries in Greece. 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 action of the novel takes place at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century (with an exception: a brief break into the twentieth century), which is to say the period of the Napoleonic wars and Rococo which permeates through the whole of the book, the setting being the vast areas from the river Labe down to Venice, and from Trieste, Sremski Karlovci and Zemun as far as Constantinople. The leading, as well as the confronting, characters, are those of the Serbian merchants' and artists' families of the Opujićs and the Teneckis.

Before all, and above all, it is a love novel in which the above – mentioned 22 keys represent the feminine key of Pavić's story about idiorhythmics (solitaries) and common inhabitants (solidaries) we have already come to know, but in the masculine key, in The Landscape Painted with Tea. This is to say that the Last Love in Constantinople is a novel which, at the end of the twentieth century, tells us, in a Pavić-like manner, about the position and the destiny of the wife in the man's world; about the patterns of behavior and the types of the woman in her relation to the set masculine world of the victors and the defeated, of the solitary and brotherhood, and also of the women's possibility to be outside, and above, the imposed masculine divisions – to be something that is the third thing, something like the third shoe as it is said in the text of the novel.

So, this Handbook for Fortune – telling comprises the "keys of a Great Secret for ladies of both sexes".

* * *

The tarot-novel by Pavić in a singular way continues Pavić's game with the reader. While Dictionary of the Khazars and the Landscape Painted with Tea, like a lexicon novel and a crossword novel puzzle, have for their models a pattern arising from the tradition of the written word, Inner Side of the Wind, like a klepsydra novel, and the Last Love in Constantinople, like a tarot – novel, have for their pattern, one object. In the latter novel the principle is somewhat changed in so far as it deals with a matter of a cult (the fortune – telling cards) and, what is even more important, the way in which the use of the matter is treated is reflected upon the novel post festum, after we have read the book and vice-versa.

The novel has also 22 cards of the "Major Arcana" added to it, each of them corresponding to the title of each chapter in the novel, while the pictorial interpretation of the cards tends to what can be called a "Byzantine tarot". 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.

So now in Pavić's layer-like prose there appears a new level of meaning – a layer each separate reader reads on his own, comparing it to his own life. It is here that a personal level of reading comes up, and the book itself gains a new dimension, a meaning and an aim of a useful object.

The Last Love in Constantinople is a novel easy to walk through, and, very likely, it will be a great surprise both to the literary critics and to the readers. I even go so far as to believe that it will be the most widely read among all the books written by Pavić. It is an exciting quick-moving and tense novel which reads easily. It is all in one wholesome energy, freshness, joy and powerful lyrical and erotic charge; that lyrical charge of the novel is the basic color, tone and the connective tissue of all the events, esoteric strata, longings and secrets of the heroes of the novel, of their deaths and resurrections. Each of the chapters embraces at least two turns – either of actions or of meanings or even stylistic – that make our breath stop still.

It is a book you can fall in love with and which can be re-read very soon just because of that love, because of our taking delight in it, because of the wish to be with its characters once more, or even more precisely: forever and a day; this is a book which – because of all we have said about it, can be carried around with ourselves as a profane reliquary, as a literary amulet.


Project Rastko / Literature / Milorad Pavić
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