Saturday, June 14, 2008

Pacatrue's Celebrate Reading Pick: THE MANUSCRIPT FOUND IN SARAGOSSA by Jan Potocki

Today, we welcome Pacatrue as our Celebrate Reading Month Guest Blogger.

About the Guest Blogger: Pacatrue's favorite movie remains Airplane! What else does anyone need to know? He currently lives in Hawaii, a fact that happens to be true, but is only put in there to make people envious. He also spends his days bathing in Nutella and collecting fat royalty checks for his 12 previously published best sellers -- both facts that are completely false, but put in here to make the bio a suitable length.

It's probably fitting that there is no deininitive version of the novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by author Jan Potocki. It was originally written in French by its Polish author, but there is no single text remaining in French or Polish. Moreover, it was published at least twice by the author and he kept writing it anyway after the second publication. In the end, this novel is just a big mass of wriggling, writhing life that Potocki sort of wound some frame story twine around to make it look seemly, but the string wrapping just won't keep the novel from bursting forth wherever it can. Even the frame story has a frame story. No really.

The narrative holding the work together is that of Alphonse van Woorden, a new officer in the Walloon Guards, who is traveling through the Sierra Morena of Spain in the early 18th century to take up his first post. His guide, Mosquito, however, vanishes and Aphonse soon finds himself being seduced by two Moorish princesses in a haunted roadside inn just after midnight -- before waking up at the foot of a gallows with a hanged, rotting corpse on either side of him. Naturally, van Woorden goes straight back to the inn for a little more haunting. I mean, he's male and a few corpses never kept a guy from pursuing a possible threesome.

The book contains around 100 stories told to van Woorden over 66 days. Some of the stories are followed only for a page or two; others, such as the story of the Gypsy Chief, are continued for so long that their protagonists rival Alphonse for importance. The stories are not provided in a simple series: story 1, story 2, story 3, etc. You can get frame stories within frame stories within frame stories within frame stories, and that's not quite enough levels in a couple instances. Potocki, our author, makes fun of this when he has one of his own characters interrupt the Gypsy Chief at one point to make notes before contunuing.

The key is that people's lives don't just make good stories; the stories they hear also change who they are, become a part of them. The stories we hear become part of the story we create for ourselves.

This might sounds like some sort of confusing mass, but somehow it's not. It's as if, when we meet someone and ask "how ya doing?", they actually stopped to tell us and we had time to listen. Or like sitting in a check-out line and knowing who all these people around you are as real people, knowing bits about where they came from, what they want, and what's in their way.

Of course, some of these people are hateful; others charming. Virtually all are misguided in some way. But they all have their own stories. In Saragossa, we've got Christians, Muslims, Jews, demons, ghosts, atheists, mathematicians, kaballists, the sheik if an all powerful secret clan hidden in the Spanish mountains for 300 years, the grandaughter of Montezuma, Spanish nobility, sycophants, and bizarre paternal philosophy after bizarre paternal philosophy, and it all just cycles and changes and evolves.

This work came to me simply on a recommendation from my wife, I believe due to her Polish/French heritage. I finally gave it a try and loved it. While there is a movie version from the 60s of the book, and a recent stage adaptation put on in Chicago, this is quintessentially a piece of art that demands the book form. Only a sliver of it can be captured in a 2-3 hour time frame. It's a work that you live in for a couple of weeks. I can imagine a writer taking ideas from this work and re-imagining them as a writing career -- at least, I've myself ended up in a library for several days reading about Mexcan historical legends as a result. I also never had wanted to visit Spain before reading the book; now it's in the top 10 list.

Oddly, most places I want to visit are because of something I've read. This essay was almost about the book Mutiny on the Bounty, and I still want to see Tahiti one day. Another contender for this essay was a book of Norse Myths I've carried around since I was 9. Yes, I want to see Norway as well.

Please, no one write an essay about an amazing novel set in the world of mortuary. I don't want to find myself dying to take a tour of the nation's funeral parlors. Pun not intended, but pun intentionally remains.


JES said...

I love this. Not the book (which I haven't read, yet -- hadn't even heard of it), but the finding out about it. It sounds like a wild combination of Don Quixote and Canterbury Tales.

(For what it's worth, if someone wants to get a flavor of it, Google Books has a scanned preview of a Penguin Classics edition online.)

Thanks for the great writeup. I'm convinced!

ChrisEldin said...

Sounds intriguing and challenging. I'm going to put it in the "War and Peace" and "Don Quixote" pile.

Is it on audio?

Great review, btw!

pacatrue said...

I definitely did a poor job of describing the thing then, Chris. The book's literally got a zombie in it. One of the stories revolves around a boy dressed as a girl who almost ends up married to the Viceroy of Mexico. It's a fun read, not a tough one. Though the style of language is of course rather different from modern writing.

The Saragossa Manuscript said...

Do you know that Wojciech Has' celebrated 1965 film adaptation of The Saragossa Manuscript has been re-released on DVD?

For more info go to:

Best wishes


Anonymous said...

I'm reading this book now and I'm loving it.
I saw the movie and it's delicious too, but I put it this way: the movie is a lake, the book is an ocean. The lake is very beautiful, but the ocean is the ocean.
Thank you for celebrating it.

lucyleite said...

I've just finished reading it and I love it! It just comes to me how it was possible to publish something of this kind at that time, such liberated women (though mostly related to the devil), lesbian/incestual relations, and so on... And in the books it's all so fresh and intriguing.

As far as the book vs film argument goes, I think they are two beautiful expressions of their own kind. No need to choose... just enjoy both!