Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The secret of the Khazars

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Image of Khazar and captive

As I’ve noted here before, when you write the first novel in what turns out to be a series, the possibilities are limitless, but for each subsequent installment, you find yourself increasingly hedged in by what came before, and not necessarily in a bad way. The Icon Thief and its first sequel were more loosely connected than most: the primary protagonist doesn’t reappear, the setting is very different, and many of the central motifs have changed. City of Exiles is less of a conspiracy novel and more of a straightforward international thriller, and in order for the two books to feel tonally consistent, I knew I’d have to reproduce some of the first book’s less obvious elements in a somewhat different form. I’d structure the plot, as before, around an unexplained historical mystery; Russia and the interlocking worlds of intelligence and organized crime would still drive the story; and, more subtly, I wanted to reintroduce a thread of Jewish mysticism. This last element played a more subdued role in The Icon Thief, but it was so intuitively appropriate to the kinds of stories I was telling—with their themes of close reading and interpretation—that I wanted to expand it in the sequel.

In City of Exiles, this took the form of an extended exploration of the vision of Ezekiel, which has fascinated me ever since I first encountered it in The White Goddess by Robert Graves. For Eternal Empire, I wanted to write about something similar, although at reduced length, just as I knew that I’d need to revisit other themes from the previous novels. At first, I thought it would be easy. I’ve been interested in Jewish mysticism and the rabbinical tradition for most of my life, and in Ilya, I had a character whose thoughts could take the story in any direction I wanted. From this rich reservoir of potential material, I finally decided, almost at random, to insert a thread about the Urim and Thummim, the mysterious stones, kept in the breastplate of the high priest, that were evidently used for divination by the ancient Israelites. I chose them because they were inherently interesting, would allow me to draw on some intriguing sources, and were relatively unexplored in the kind of novel I was writing, although there have been a few attempts to put them at the center of an Indiana Jones-type adventure. What I had in mind was something else, a kind of thematic counterpoint to the main action, similar to the role that Ezekiel’s chariot had played in the previous book.

A page from Dictionary of the Khazars

I began, as always, by doing a lot of reading, including Cornelis Van Dam’s excellent recent study of the subject, and I ended up with what I’d like to think is a plausible, evocative, and novel interpretation of the Urim and Thummim. And I’d love to use it someday. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that the topic, while compelling, just didn’t work for the purpose I’d intended. Even now, I’m not entirely sure why: I suspect that it was probably too remote from the underlying story, and the thematic resonance I needed just wasn’t there. As a result, I found myself switching gears after I’d already written half the novel. Casting about for another subject, I hit on the story of the Khazars, which had been on my mind for a long time. The Khazars were a tribe of horsemen who, at their peak, dominated much of Central Asia during the Dark Ages, serving as a kind of bulwark between Byzantium and the Arab empires. At some point, remarkably, they underwent a mass conversion to Judaism, forming the first authentically Jewish kingdom since the time of the Bible. The details of the conversion are still unclear: it may have been a politically motivated decision, allowing them to build a more organized religious society while remaining independent of their Christian and Muslim neighbors. Or, as I argue in Eternal Empire, it may have been something else. In any case, nobody knows: Russia ultimately wiped the Khazars off the map, and aside from a few scattered artifacts, nothing of their kingdom remains.

Of course, I’m not the first novelist to be drawn to this story, and one of my secret motivations for writing about it was the excuse to finally read Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars, an extraordinary book that now ranks among my ten favorite novels of all time. (My other primary source was Arthur Koestler’s The Thirteenth Tribe, mostly because I find Koestler interesting as a writer, although I’m aware that his conclusions about the Khazars—he argues that they were the true ancestors of the Ashkenazi Jews—are highly controversial.) And while I knew from the start that my take on the subject wouldn’t be nearly as rich as Pavic’s, I could tell that I’d made the right choice. Ilya Severin, the Jewish thief and former assassin who stands at the center of the trilogy, is also known as the Scythian, a name I gave him because of its historical connotations: the nomadic Scythians have always been central to the Russian imagination, to which they represent the forces of the East fighting with the culture of the West for control of the nation’s destiny. The same conflict plays out within Ilya, on a smaller scale, but I’d always felt guilty that I’d never made the connection between him and the Khazars, who lived and died in the same land as the Scythians. In Eternal Empire, Ilya says as much: “Given the choice, I would rather have been a Khazar.” And now, at last, he’ll have his chance.

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