Pavic's writing is brilliant but ultimately tiresome

December 23, 1990|By ZOFIA SMARDZ

Landscape Painted With Tea.

Milorad Pavic.

Knopf.339 pages. $21.95. Yugoslav author Milorad Pavic writes like a dream. His language, full of brilliant metaphors, dazzling imagery and unexpected turns of phrase and word choices, is graceful and TC beautiful, the language of a wordsmith who has worked hard to perfect his art and to push it beyond the limits of the accepted and conventional. It is also -- full as it is of eccentricities, non sequiturs and absurd juxtapositions of actions and emotions -- the literal language of a dream, language that creates an amorphous, ambiguous landscape.

The world of dreams and the dreamlike world were an actual theme of Mr. Pavic's previous novel, "The Dictionary of the Khazars," which created a minor sensation in literary circles upon its U.S. publication a year ago. In it, he advanced the subtle thesis that books are dreams and their readers, like some of "The Dictionary's" characters, are "dream hunters," pursuing the meaning of human origin, action, emotion and demise through labyrinthine corridors of language and cognition.

In his newest work, "Landscape Painted With Tea," Mr. Pavic eschews any express handling of the subject of dreams. But the novel has the same intense dreamlike quality that distinguished its predecessor; and the theme of life as a dream, and books as the dreams of their readers, underlies its story like a rich carpet of meaning.

The story is that of Belgrade architect Atanas Svilar, a failure at his profession despite a brilliant talent. One day he sets off in search of his long-lost father, an officer hunted by the Nazis who disappeared in Greece during World War II. It also is the story of Atanas Razin, successful Los Angeles businessman, who builds up a prosperous engineering and pharmaceuticals business and wins a life with his great love, Vitacha Milut. Svilar and Razin, in fact, are one and the same person, two sides of the same coin, which the author flips over and back with consummate skill, flashing glimmers of each character at us as we scramble to tell one from the other.

This is all part of Mr. Pavic's theory that we are, of course, never entirely what we seem to be, and that in the course of a life we may be many different people, while ultimately remaining the same. Powerfully, he draws the contrast that exists, at certain stages of a person's life, between his dreams and his reality, between the person he could have been and the person he is: "The contrast between Svilar's life then, which still lay ahead of him and was an undefined as a crossroads on water, and his life now, between the Svilar of then, who absorbed everything and could become anything, and this drained man, spent and embalmed by the scents of the plants, was so crushing that it could barely be endured."

In such passages, and in the myriad fanciful descriptions that glisten on the pages of "Landscape," Mr. Pavic displays the genius that raises his works high above the ordinary. Yet at the same time, his insistence on turning his books into "games" -- in this case, a crossword puzzle -- and involving the reader in contorted conundrums and invitations to read across or down or inside out, while exceedingly clever and inventive is ultimately tiresome.

Mr. Pavic's lavish challenges to a reader's powers of concentration, his relentless demands on our willingness to wade through rivers of teasing and tangled thoughts, finally weaken the overall effect of the very real artistry he has at his command. Like a dream, "Landscape Painted With Tea" is richly layered with images and meanings, full of flashes of brilliant insight, logical even in its jumbled incoherence. But also like a dream, it recedes quickly from memory once it's done.

Ms. Smardz is a writer living in Orlando, Fla.

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