The Manuscript Found In Saragossa
Reviewed by Michael Cornett
By Jan Potocki
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.