LANDSCAPE PAINTED WITH TEA By Milorad Pavic Translated from the Serbo-Croatian By Christina Pribicevic-Zoric Knopf. 339 pp. $21.95
MOST AMERICAN readers and publishers of serious fiction seem more willing to accept -- and at times are even fascinated by -- what we loosely call experimental fiction as long as it comes from Europe or South America. It can be dense, difficult, even boring, and such readers still love it -- love it as long as it is not written by an American writer.
This acceptance or infatuation is not unrelated to the fact that we are enchanted by things foreign in general -- accents, art, fashion. The domestic intolerance for native experiments in fiction-making is symptomatic of our historical and cultural inferiority complex. But that is a subject for another occasion.
The example of an imported experimental novel at hand is Yugoslav writer Milorad Pavic's Landscape Painted with Tea. A hugely ambitious, playful, inventive, demanding, magical and linguistically sensuous reading experience, it is also hugely digressive and therefore sometimes a swamp bed.
Pavic's model for the book's structure is supposed to be the crossword puzzle, with its down and across system. There are "down" testimonials by the protagonist, Atanas Svilar/Atanas Fydorovich Razin, a civil engineer, in which we see him ascend from poverty to unbelievable wealth and keep notebooks in which he records his thoughts, stories, observations, plans, drawings.
The reading down idea -- which takes place in time rather than in the space on the page -- also records the life of his second wife, Vitacha Milut, who leaves her husband, Major Pohvalich, and their three daughters in Belgrade and runs off to Vienna -- and later to America -- with Atanas. Theirs is a tragicomic love story.
But "down" gives us much more -- the life stories of three sisters, Cecilia, Azra and Olga; Atanas's stories of trips abroad; relevant stories told by various other characters such as Atanas's mother, who later comes to fear her monstrously rich son.
Reading down, from Pavic's point of view, is the new way of reading. Reading "across" is the old (linear) way.
The "across" sections give us the old familiar but -- in Pavic's hands -- unavoidably what is intended to be the unfamiliar as well. In the "across" scheme the narrator sets up a boobytrap network of compromises for the traditionalist. For those who like disorder there is disorder, for those who like order there appears to be order.
But this order is relative and limited. Numbered chapters, for example, are presented for lovers of order, but there's a catch; they are not in numerical order, a device echoing Steve Katz's 1972 novel Saw. Pavic's narrator says, "not everybody likes to read in order."
But most readers, the narrator seems to know, look for order -- or, to use his expression, "well-arranged crossings." "What is a book, really, other than a collection of words well crossed?" he asks. Pavic himself as author clings to order while professing the creative explosion of disorder.
One of Pavic's goals is to reorganize our experience of reading fiction -- much as the late Donald Barthelme often did -- so that we can see the familiar with fresh eyes. "Why . . . must the reader always be like a police inspector . . . Why not let him at least zigzag somewhere?"
Once involved with Landscape Painted with Tea, the reader will indeed zigzag from beginning to end. In its big, sprawling way, it will take the reader through a staggering maze of thought and action -- World War II, Catholicism, atheism, Satan, the Universe, death, Greek poetry, Byzantine liturgical song, Tito's various homes, cities such as Istanbul, Belgrade, Vienna and huge chunks of the secular and sacred histories of Salonika, Syria, Mesopotamia, Egypt. These mental excursions amount to meditations.
Among many others in this linguistic, ideological and philosophical scene-crossed text are reflections on Mount Athos and its two monastic life styles (the cenobites and the solitaries), the Danube, The Odyssey, the Adriatic Sea, astrology and the nature of dreams.
Both the "down" and "across" sections are composed of long and short episodes. The short episodes -- and the book is essentially a collection of them -- tend to end with a surprising twist. The episodes with longer threads, those lasting to the end, follow the same principle. The reader will find that each twist reveals a moral. In this sense Pavic retains the spell of the old-fashioned storyteller.
But most of what Pavic wants the reader to reflect on comes not from Atanas himself but from those interesting minor characters, such as the ex-husband of his second wife, who comments on one of the obsessions of the book itself when he says:
"What is the present? Our present is really the stoppage of time . . . this 'now' is the only common denominator of all living things. It is the only moment of life, from the beginning to the end of time, because everything else, the two eternities that stretch out before and after our 'now,' are in the deepest torpor. Consequently, the present is that part of the time which has stopped."
On another occasion a monk speaks: "A book, if you expect wonders of it, should . . . be read twice. It should be read once in youth, when you are younger than its heroes, and the second time when you are advanced in age and the book's heroes become younger than yourself. That way you will see them from both sides of their years, and they will be able to put you to the test on the other side of the clock, where time stands still. This means that it is forever too late to read some books, just as sometimes it is forever too late to go to bed . . .
I will not give away the ending of Landscape Painted with Tea. But I will say that it offers an "Index," which is not to be read in the conventional way, and it leaves a lined space for the reader to write his or her own denouement.
In keeping with the business of a crossword puzzle, it also offers an upside-down "Solution." Several times throughout the novel, the narrator urges the impatient reader to quickly turn to these sections. My advice is not to take him seriously. The process of reading this novel -- and novels like it -- is what so-called experimental fiction is all about.
Aside from the idea of the crossword puzzle as a model for a novel, much of what may pass for technical innovation in Pavic's book has already been done many times by such writers as Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Gertrude Stein, Jean Toomer, Kenneth Patchen, William Carlos Williams, and more recently John Barth, Raymond Federman, Robert Coover and Russell Banks -- to mention only a few American writers.
In other words, Milorad Pavic -- being hailed in Europe and America as a ground-breaking writer -- is merely joining an already illustrious international group without bringing to it much that is new. Clarence Major's novels, which are often called experimental, include the recent "Painted Turtle: Woman With Guitar."