Crossword book club: Landscape Painted With Tea by Milorad Pavić

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Before we get to the book, a heads up that the Guardian’s beautiful puzzle supplement on Saturday contained, alongside proper puzzles from Carpathian and Picaroon (of whom more below), my own “The most Guardian crossword ever”.

The Serbian writer Milorad Pavić was not fond of a beginning, a middle and an end. One of his plays takes the form of a restaurant menu. His most famous novel, translated into various languages, is structured as a dictionary. Then there’s the crossword one, Landscape Painted With Tea, which comes with the instructions “How to solve this book across” and “How to solve this book down”.

You could call it the life story of an architect, but that’s not really its point. The book is about thinking of people as belonging in two different groups, as unalike as across and down. It’s also a kind of game. The trick is to work out what is expected of you the reader – and I believe I can help.

Like Cain’s Jawbone, the whodunnit by the Observer crossword setter Torquemada (AKA Edward Powys Mathers, who died in 1939), you choose what order to read the book’s various bits. But while Cain’s Jawbone has a solution, Pavić’s invitation to “solve this book” – along with the lined blank pages he leaves for the reader to “write in the denouement” – is still more of a game. Or, at least, if there is a solution, it’s not of the “the murderer was X” variety.

Pavić’s goal is altogether grander: to invent a new way of reading, which he hopes will help us to defy time and the inevitability of death. Right. But is it enjoyable? It is, sometimes.

My experience began with some extra bafflement, thanks to the unfamiliar Serbian-style grids (see image, left).

Happily, I could turn to the Guardian’s expert in experimental fiction, the Serbo-Croat language and crosswords, the setter and novelist Picaroon. How do Serbian crosswords work, I asked. Picaroon says that some resemble American puzzles and some, in a format called Skandinavka, look like French mots fléchés, where the definitions are inside the grid …

There’s also a format called ‘bela ukrštenica’ (‘white crossword’), which has numbers for each row and column and you have to work out how to fit the solutions in the columns/rows based on crossing letters (so slightly in the direction of a ‘carte blanche’ style British advanced puzzle, although you do know which column or row the words go in).

OK, but it seems that as well as the grids, the culture of crosswording is different. One of the many ways that the narrator of Landscape Painted With Tea splits the world into two is by distinguishing between solvers who enjoy “well-arranged crossings” and those who appreciate “actual words”. Can Serbian puzzles, I asked Picaroon, have words that aren’t definitely words?

There’s not really a standard reference work like Chambers or Collins which is considered a kind of crossword bible. What’s more, there doesn’t seem to be strict editorial oversight of puzzles, so things like (comprehensible) neologisms or pretty unusual inflected forms of words crop up, leading to a few raised eyebrows.

With that information, I now understood how to approach this book. I was wrong to think of it as a collection of parables, jokes and asides given structure and meaning by the crossword device. It’s a collection of parables, jokes and asides that the crossword device renders even more ambiguous.

If you haven’t read it, and if you remain tempted, my other tip is: you have to work your way through it very, very slowly.

Our next book

If we were to do some Pavić-style dividing of people into, say, those who appreciate postmodern attempts to defy the inevitability of death, and those who want to know who commited the murder, that might suggest that our next book should be a whodunnit.

And it is! Have His Carcase is the seventh Lord Peter Wimsey novel, the second to feature Harriet Vane – and there is a code. Let’s read it over the summer and discuss in the autumn.

Past book club books

Find a collection of explainers, interviews and other helpful bits and bobs at alanconnor.com

The Shipping Forecast Puzzle Book by Alan Connor, which is partly but not predominantly cryptic, can be ordered from the Guardian Bookshop