I tend to introduce these reviews with a story or anecdote inspired by the text in question, something, in most cases, from my own past or present life. So as I came to write about Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa I was understandably perturbed when I realised that group sex [specifically threesomes] is so central to the novel’s plot. As much as I want to engage and entertain the reader, to build a relationship with the reader, I don’t much fancy going there. Even a self-obsessed blabbermouth has his limits.
In which case, what else should I focus on? Well, The Manuscript could be said to be a Gothic novel, with ghosts [and Satan!] featuring heavily, and I did once, as a child, apparently claim to have seen one sitting on the end of my bed, but that was likely the overactive imagination of a troubled little boy. I could, instead, write something about the author, and how it is said that he killed himself with a silver bullet, fashioned from the handle of a sugar bowl, which is certainly a suitably macabre anecdote. But, in the end, I have come to see that none of that is necessary, because what is most telling, most relevant, relative to this novel, is precisely my desire to share stories, my love of inventing, dramatising and embellishing, my need, you might say, to rummage around in my memories and work the details of my life into short narratives.
“Thought assists memory in enabling it to order the material it has assembled. So that in a systematically ordered memory every idea is individually followed by all conclusions it entails.”
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa begins with a brief passage about how the book was, well, found in Saragossa by an unnamed French military man, who is later captured by the Spanish. Once under arrest he requests that he be able to keep the manuscript, which, as it is written in Spanish, he can only fully understand when it is translated and read to him by a Spanish captain. Therefore, before even entering the main body of the work, one has got a taste of how tricksy and shifting and tangled, how difficult to pin down, the book is: it is, to reiterate, the story of a manuscript written in Spanish…discovered by a Frenchman…translated out loud by a Spaniard…then written down in French. And yet it was actually authored by a Polish Count […although this too is subject to debate].
The following 600 pages are then given over to a mind-bending number of stories, stories within stories, and stories within stories within stories, etc., that take place mostly in Spain, France and Italy. There is, however, also a strong framing narrative, involving a young Wolloon Guard, Alphonse Von Worden, and his peregrinations through the possibly haunted Sierra Moreno and beyond, in the company of, amongst others, cabbalists, sexy lesbian Muslim sisters [who may be succubi], gypsies, bandits, and hanged men. For me, it is this that sets The Manuscript Found in Saragossa apart from other well-known books of this sort. The Arabian Nights and The Decameron, for example, are wonderful, but the framing narrative in each is just that: it is a thin [i.e. underdeveloped], less-than-engaging device that merely serves to tie the more entertaining tales together. Yet with Potocki’s work the frame is probably the most enjoyable [or certainly the most intriguing] aspect of the novel, and I was always eager to get back to it, even though the other stories, with the exception of The Wandering Jew’s, were also able to effortlessly hold my attention.
[One of Zoto’s brothers, from the film version of the novel]
One would expect with this kind of novel that there wouldn’t be a great deal of character depth or development, but that isn’t necessarily the case here. I certainly wouldn’t call any of the main characters complex, but Potocki does provide backstories, and explanations or justifications as to their personalities or behaviour. For example, in one of the stories we are told how Alphonse’s father was an expert on duelling, and duelling etiquette, and how he impressed upon his son the importance of honour and fearlessness; indeed, he once wanted the young boy thrashed when he admitted that he would be frightened if ever in the presence of ghosts. Therefore, one understands, in retrospect, why Alphonse refused to turn back even when warned twice about travelling through the Sierra Moreno, and why he appears to take all the strange goings-on in his stride. Furthermore, throughout the framing narrative Alphonse’s honour is put to the test. After giving the two Muslim sisters his word that he would not think ill of them, no matter what he was told or experienced, he is frequently asked to denounce them, but steadfastly refuses, and is, in fact, generally suspicious of anyone who wants him to doubt them.
I briefly mentioned Alphonse’s father in the preceding paragraph, and it is worth noting that the relationship between parents and children, specifically fathers and their children, plays a key role in most of the stories. Potocki’s fathers tend to be demanding of their offspring and/or subject to some peculiar preoccupation themselves. Take Valasquez, the geometrician, whose father insists that he avoid geometry and mathematics, and learn how to dance instead; or the cabbalist Rebecca, whose father, also a cabbalist, devotes his life to the art, and later insists that his daughter marry two demi-Gods. What the author shows in this instance, and in many other stories, is how one’s parents influence the direction of one’s life and help to mould the person that you become. Rebecca feels pressurised into pursuing cabbala, which does not interest her as much as her father and brother, and considers it an impediment to her living her life as she would like, taking a mortal husband and having children of her own.
Eventually Rebecca gives up cabbala, and one sees in this another of the novel’s motifs, which is that of things or people changing in some way or becoming something else. The most obvious, and repeated, example of this is the two hanged men, who we are initially informed are Zoto’s brothers [and therefore bandits], but who are later revealed to be shepherds, executed by the authorities in place of the brothers. Throughout, many of the characters have some experience of the two men, which invariably involves them coming down from the gallows and taking another form – such as the two Muslim sisters, Emina and Zubaida – and attempting to, or succeeding in, seducing them. Moreover, there is some debate as to whether the men are ghosts or vampires, or even whether they are, in fact, supernatural at all.
[Emina and Zubaida, and Alphonse]
As a reviewer you want to identify, and discuss, the author’s aims, his ideas; you want to be able to say what the point is of all that you have read. But one of the features of The Manuscript is that it doesn’t appear to have any overriding, unifying theme[s]. Take the stuff about change, you might say that it is intended to highlight how things are not always what they seem, to warn you that you should not judge too rashly; or perhaps you could see it all as a comment on how life is full of twists and turns, how it is rarely ever stable and consistent. Yet I don’t really buy any of that, which is to say that, yes, life is not always consistent, but I don’t think the author was too concerned with communicating that idea to his audience. I think, as hinted at in my introduction, that the book is simply a very fine example of [a love of] the art of story telling; it is the product of someone revelling in it and having fun, rather than that of a man wanting to instruct or teach or philosophise. And sometimes that is just what you need: mindless fun, that doesn’t overtax your brain or play on your emotions.