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The Manuscript Found In Saragossa
By Jan Potocki

Reviewed by Michael Cornett
Rating: none given

And on the 67th day....
Finally available in a complete English edition (at least until new material surfaces) is Jan Potocki's macabre classic The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. This lengthy tale chronicles the adventures of a French soldier, Alphonse van Worden, as he wanders in the haunted Sierra Morena mountains of Spain in 1739. He encounters haunted houses, underground passages, lustful Moors, gypsies, mathematicians, brother-and-sister sorcerers, and even the Wandering Jew himself.

Every day, Alphonse sits down with a group of wanderers like himself, who all regale him with tales from their checkered pasts. Each character has a story to tell, sometimes leaving off and starting up again several days later. Characters in one person's tale will tell their own tales. Tale is layered on tale, at one point reaching the unimaginable height of a tale within a tale within a tale within a tale within a tale (no kidding!). There is an air of sexual freedom about the stories - there are a handful of episodes of transvestism and gender-bending, and many sexual encounters, often involving three or more people.

Some of the tales are light and humorous, some are romantic, but many are full of supernatural events. Alphonse goes to bed with two beautiful women and wakes up with two male corpses. Buried bodies rise and dance around a ruined chapel. A wizard summons a genie to do his bidding. The Wandering Jew tells of his own origins. (Note: The Wandering Jew, subject of many medieval legends, was supposedly a man who mocked Jesus on His way to the Crucifixion and was cursed to wander the earth until the Second Coming.) Even when things aren't precisely supernatural, there is often a dreamlike air about the proceedings; and the reader is often suspicious as to the reality of Alphonse's various experiences. Alphonse wonders if the two lovely ladies who seduce him are real - or demons out to corrupt his soul. He wonders if the people surrounding him are just chance acquaintances - or part of a conspiracy to make him turn against his faith.

Potocki (the author), a Polish nobleman, was a noted explorer, scientist, balloonist, writer, and libertine in his day. He committed suicide in 1815, some say by shooting a handmade silver bullet into his brain. It is believed that The Manuscript Found in Saragossa was begun in 1797 and worked on in fits and starts until his death. The first parts of it were published in 1815, with other tales turning up piece by piece over the next century - with a complete edition being published in 1989. Just this year, it was made available in English. For a novel pieced together over a period of 200 years, it is remarkably smooth, considering its format. Reading it is a daunting task though, as it chronicles 66 days over a length of 631 pages. (Sheesh!) Parts of it were made into a critically acclaimed movie, The Saragossa Manuscript, in 1964 by Polish director Wojciech J. Has.

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