Hiding in the index: an Easter egg from Pale Fire

Cover to Pale Fire

I recently finished reading Pale Fire by Nabokov. While I’m still sorting out my thoughts on the book and deciding whether I should reread it now or in the future (because this book demands a closer look), I thought I’d share a little Easter egg I found and greatly enjoyed in this book. And thankfully, since this is not a plot-critical detail, I can share it guilt-free.

At various points in Pale Fire, our attention is directed towards two Soviet experts Andronnikov and Niagarin who are in search for the Crown Jewels of Zembla. Of course, their search is futile. Our commentator reminds us that the jewels have been well hidden, and at some point almost seems as if he means to reveal their location to us. He stops himself before this happens.

So are we readers never meant to know the whereabouts of these important jewels? To my pleasant surprise when reading the index, an early entry taunts us with a hint. It reads:

Andronnikov and Niagarin, two Soviet experts in quest of a buried treasure, 130, 681, 741; see Crown Jewels.

This leads us to the entry: 

Crown Jewels, 130, 681; see Hiding Place.

Could this be it? A reward for a dutiful reader who follows the entries in the index? Just like a dutiful reader is expected to follow our commentator’s many implorations to read the book in a certain manner or to jump around from note to note? What does the Hiding Place entry give us?

Hiding Place, potaynik (q.v.)

The unfamiliar word and Latin abbreviations threw me off for a moment. Was this the name of the Crown Jewel’s hiding place? A search on Google Translate tells me that potaynik likely means “secret”. And q.v. is short for “which see”. In an index it is commonly used to mean “for which, see elsewhere”.

We’ve just been elaborately trolled in the index of a book.

(Incidentally, our two Soviets make another appearance in a later index entry: Niagarin and Andronnikov, two Soviet “experts” still in quest of a buried treasure, 130, 681, 741; see Crown Jewels. Here Nabokov simultaneously offers us a joke about these two characters, while quietly laughing at the prank he laid out for his readers.)

Pale Fire is full of surprises and treats for the diligent reader, and there are many more jokes hidden within the index alone. But enjoying these tidbits is not a matter of following treasure maps. A reader must also pay close enough attention to realise that a map has been given to them, and although I’ve reread several sections of the book, I feel like I’ve barely begun to understand the scale of the iceberg that I’m seeing. I look forward to revisiting this work.

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