Wednesday 21 December 2022

Review: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potocki

 The Manuscript Found in Saragossa is one of the most difficult books to describe when asked what it's about. Far easier is it to describe what it’s doing, a character goes about and meets people who tell him their stories, and in their stories are people who tell them stories, and in those stories there are people that tell stories until it’s a big nested set of stories in stories in stories. Though people tend to look a bit confused when you explain that, so you explain the author was a Polish count who killed himself with a silver bullet because he thought he was becoming a werewolf - that tends to end the conversation.

The frame story itself is far more interesting than I expected. Beyond the outer frame of a French soldier finding the manuscript in an abandoned house in Saragossa, the inner frame of Alphonse, the Walloon officer is fascinating in itself. The blurb seemed to suggest that Alphonse was stuck in an inn and would listen to the stories there, rather like The Decameron or a static Canterbury Tales, instead it’s a whole peculiar adventure in itself.

If anything Alphonse’s story reminded me (at first) of the first book of Don Quixote. Not only is Alphonse a fairly quixotic character himself, dedicated to a specific military form of honour but he wanders the Sierra Morena and gets into scrapes. Not only that, but the interpolated stories in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa are structurally similar to Don Quixote. They have a very different tone though, gothic with hints of demons and supernatural goings on. The beginning is almost structured like a nightmare, with Alphonse trying to get as far away from the gibbet as possible but always waking up underneath it.

What’s more, the gothic/supernatural elements are quite extreme. At one point it is heavily suggested that Alphonse has partaken in an incestual, diabolic, necrophiliac, gay threesome and that numerous other characters may have done also. Being a fan of the gothic, particularly the more outrĂ© versions of it, I was fascinated by these sections and was really keen to know what was going on, who were the mysterious Emina and Zubeida and what was the deal of the Great Sheikh of the Gomelez.

In the early parts, I particularly liked the character of Pacheco. He had been visited by the possible succubi who had led him to devils. One of these devils had pulled his eye out and “darted his burning tongue in my eye socket and licked my brain” before ripping his leg open and playing the tendons like a guitar. My favourite thing about him is how he lurched about, an Igor like figure until the hermit commanded him in the name of his saviour to speak and then he let out a howl of pain before telling his story in a cultured and straightforward manner - it’s like a Mel Brooks joke.

Alphonse meets other characters; a cabbalist and his cabbalist sister, a man who sees the whole world through mathematics who annoys the other characters with his pedantry, and a Gypsy Chief. This Gypsy is the main source of stories through the middle and into the end of the book, with the people in his stories often telling stories also (and those in them, and those in them). The nature of the stories then change, veering away from the uncanny. The Gypsy’s own story is a classic bildungsroman, he finds himself in many stations in life, takes on many identities and sees his society from top to bottom as he grows older. Unlike many figures in these sorts of stories, he even spends some time as a young lady when he swaps with a woman who is not interested in her suitor. This is drawn right up to the line and I almost thought he’d end up being married. He even repeats the crossdressing act a little later.

The stories the Gypsy collects are largely amatory tales and amatory farces. Chief among these is the story of a merchant’s son who falls in love but is constantly thwarted by the ‘help’ of a meddling idiot called Busqueros. This character is probably the one who changes the most in the book as he is met by other characters in the stories in stories at different points. I suppose most of the people we ‘meet’ in the book are largely at the end of their story but Busqueros, never actually being met is always in a state of change. He changes from being a meddling idiot to a grade A creep, describing his childhood as a peeping Tom, a habit he continues into adulthood. As the stories then take a turn away from the romantic and towards the political, he becomes a spy and the chief antagonist of those within the story of the story.

The introduction to the book by the translator, Ian Maclean is really good, especially because it doesn’t spoil any of the surprises in the book but it does say the ending falls a little flat with most people. It did with me as well. All the exciting, peculiar gothic stuff at the beginning of the book was orchestrated as a set of trials to test Alphonse’s suitability to father the heirs to the Grand Sheikh of the Gomelez, a (literal) underground society of shiite muslims. There were no succubi or demons and my boy Pacheco was a circus performer playing a part. Maclean suggested in his introduction that Potocki had changed his mind about the tone and veered into something more grounded, but I actually think the reveal is consistently set up.

After the introduction of the Gypsy Chief, the stories do become less supernatural and the supernatural occurrences in all of them are eventually explained away. Busqueros poking is head in a window is mistaken for a ghost and the ‘dead’ Leonora is a fake out. Most telling was the story of the Knight of Torres. He was a playboy who didn’t worry about purgatory until his friend told him he was going to a duel and if he died would confirm or deny purgatory to him. That night, the Knight hears a sound outside his window, flings it open and calls to the air if his friend is dead. A voice replies in the affirmative. He then asks it if there is a purgatory and the voice again replies ‘yes’. It’s over a hundred pages later when we get the story of Lope Soarez, who climbs up a ladder to see his love, gets the wrong window, is knocked out by a flung shutter and dazedly answers ‘yes’ to the questions he’s asked. This story establishes that even earlier supernatural stories in the book have daft but worldly reasons. As such, the second half of the book builds a slow disenchantment which sets up the ending. The book is set in a world in which people go to fantastical lengths to reach their goals but there’s no hocus pocus.

This is a fascinating and unique book and I recommend it to anyone prepared to put the effort in. While I certainly preferred the stranger first half to the more grounded second, and I did think the book hit a bit of a rut for a while, it’s worth reading and will probably be worth re-reading.

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