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THE MANUSCRIPT FOUND IN SARAGOSSA BY JAN POTOCKI

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 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.

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[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.

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[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.

HADJI MURAT BY LEO TOLSTOY

As I made my way through this short book I told myself that I wasn’t going to review it, that I just didn’t have the mental or emotional energy. This is partly due to having written a lot of reviews this month, and partly due to what has happened recently in the world. I am not asking anyone to take pity on me, of course, but I feel horribly deflated right now, and I was wary of this filtering into my approach to Tolstoy’s work. But then I came towards the end of Hadji Murat, and I read about how “the militiamen gathered over the bodies/like hunters over a dead beast, standing among the bushes in the gunsmoke, gaily chatting and celebrating their victory.” And I heard Marya Dmitrievna’s cry, actually heard it, filling my room: ‘What’s war? You are butchers, and that’s all there is to it.” And I changed my mind. I decided that I had to write something, even though I worry that it will be confusing, ill-thought out, and, at times, completely off the point.

I’m sure I’ll have to take some flak for this, but as far as I am concerned there is no victory in war, there are no heroes. I refuse to celebrate the taking of life, any life. Immediately after the Paris attacks, in fact while they were still ongoing, I started coming across comments such as ‘kill them all, no trial necessary.’ All? Terrorists? Muslims?! You may say I am being dramatic, and yet thousands of people want borders closing, immigrants thrown out. They are, let’s face it, itching for war; they are, I can’t shake the feeling, enjoying this. Don’t get me wrong, what happened in Paris is a tragedy, a disgrace; my thoughts, as they always are, are with the victims, with all innocent, oppressed people around the world, but there is no blood lust in me, there is no hate, only sadness. Yes, those responsible for the Paris attacks are butchers. I just don’t want to be a butcher too.

Daghestan.Ghimeri,_portrait_de_Hadji-Mourad._(1847)

The story of Hadji Murat is, Tolstoy [or his narrator] claims, one that he part saw, part heard, and part imagined. Murat is a Muslim, and a Chechen rebel commander, famous for his exploits. He presents Murat as a well-mannered, generous, friendly man with ‘kindly eyes’, who charms almost everyone he meets. Having made an enemy of another powerful Chechen, Shamil, he has defected over to the Russians, with whom the Chechens are at war. In contrast to Shamil, and the Russian soldiers, leaders, etc, Murat’s goals are honourable. He does not desire glory, riches, awards, or power, rather he wants to avenge himself and his family, and he wants his wife and children to be rescued. The idea appears to be that he has to fight, not that he wants to, but one must not forget, as I sometimes felt the author did, that he is a murderer too. In any case, it is clear that Tolstoy admired the man, for his humility, his independent spirit [he rejects both the Russians and Shamil], but perhaps most of all for his commitment to his religion and religious principles.

So, of course, one feels as though Tolstoy is holding Murat up as a kind of example, but it is equally apparent that he was also using him in order to take shots at his own people.* Indeed, he sees them as Murat sees them. Once the rebel has put himself into Russian hands, he is given access to their homes, and their activities. In one scene he attends the theatre, but, obviously not having enjoyed the experience, leaves early; in another he attends a ball, and again haughtily takes off at the earliest opportunity. This isn’t, as he himself says, about acceptable cultural differences, as he negatively judges these people [as one imagines the author does too] for their frivolous pastimes and revealing dresses. In fact, the most positive thing you could say about any Russian in the novel [aside from Marya Dmitrievna who all but falls in love with Murat, and Avdeev, who I will return to] is that they are, like Butler, affable buffoons. Yet, for the most part, Russians are shown to be gamblers, drinkers; they are idle, lascivious, and dishonourable.

“War presented itself to him as consisting only in his exposing himself to danger and to possible death, thereby gaining rewards and the respect of his comrades here, as well as of his friends in Russia. Strange to say, his imagination never pictured the other aspect of war: the death and wounds of the soldiers, officers, and mountaineers. To retain his poetic conception he even unconsciously avoided looking at the dead and wounded.”

I don’t want to give the impression that Hadji Murat is a bad book, or even that it is overtly mean-spirited, or preachy. It seems that way when you write all this down, but, and I am aware of the contradiction here, it doesn’t really read like that [except in the case of the Tsar who is – rightly or wrongly – torn to shreds]. This is Tolstoy, which means that any complaints one might have about elements of his work are rendered petty by his great genius. Butler, for example, is a nincompoop, but one can’t help but be charmed by him regardless. It always strikes me, when I read him, that Tolstoy often started out with rather pompous, unpleasant ideas, and yet could never quite see them through, that his love of humanity always took over or compromised his initial vision. And so we get someone like Avdeev, the soldier who agreed to go to war in his brother’s place, a man who, at home, was hardworking, and who feels, in his current predicament, ‘heartsick.’ He is the one Russian soldier in the novel with a conscience, who feels as though this isn’t a right or good life. He, predictably, is killed in battle, just as his mother is sending him a touching, emotional letter, with a Ruble enclosed. Hadji Murat is full of wonderful minor portraits like this, and memorable scenes, such as the servant Vavilo, or the pipe smoking in the forest, or Murat’s dreams merging with the sounds of the jackals….or the head. My God, the head. That will stay with me for years. And, finally, there is Marya Dmitrievna’s cry, a cry not for one man, not just for Murat, but for all men who have fallen, and continue to fall, in these senseless power games.

*it is worth noting that Tolstoy was, of course, writing with the Russian public in mind, one that, you’d assume, wasn’t entirely positively disposed towards Chechens. If you bear that in mind, then Hadji Murat might be interpreted as a call for compassion, or tolerance, towards those you perceive as your enemies, or simply those who are different from you. There is always a temptation to demonise other cultures – you might think they look weird, smell weird, eat weird, that their customs are barbaric, that they are prone to violence, etc. – without truly understanding them, or even taking account of what is under your own nose i.e. your own culture or practices, which may be just as baffling or appalling to the people you criticise. Therefore, that the author shows Murat – the other – to be caring, and considerate, and so on, was, and still is, an important message. My one issue with this would be that Tolstoy takes it too far, so that he comes across as a prince among swine.