Friday, July 27, 2007

Review of the Manuscript Found in Saragossa -- Jan Potocki

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa is a strange little book unlike anything else I've ever read, except perhaps the Arabian Tales from 1001 Nights. It is quite old, the first publishing of which occurred in France in 1814, making it older than almost every other modern expression of fantasy.

The book is subtitled "Ten Days in the Life of Alphonse van Worden", which aptly describes the frame story. Signor van Worden is abandoned by two of his companions who have taken with them all his provisions for a long journey. Forced to seek shelter and food wherever he kind find it along a deserted trail in a mountainous region of Spain. He comes to the entrance to a lonely valley and sees a gibbet set for three men. Two carcasses hang there, the third noose awaiting the last of the Zoto brothers, infamous bandits known to prey upon travelers through this land. Van Worden recalls stories that at night these bandit-corpses leave the gibbet and harass travelers in revenge for their deaths.

Unperturbed, van Worden proceeds into the valley. He comes across the Venta Quemada, an old Moorish castle converted lately into a hostelry and subsequently abandoned. He had been warned away from the place by other travelers; but being a man sworn to fear nothing, not the least of which being ghosts and apparitions, he decides to search the desolate place for a place to rest and perhaps some food.

He finds nothing to eat, but finds a bed of hay upon which to lay his head. Unable to sleep, he lays there in silence until midnight comes, at which he hears a haunting bell tolling twelve (he heard no such bell toll the previous hours). Shortly thereafter, a pair of beautiful women approach and invite him to a sumptuous feast. To his surprise, they turn out to be distant relatives of his, though they are Muslim. They enjoin him several times to convert to Islam in order that they might marry him and restore the link between the van Worden and Gomelez families, making him heir to an outrageous fortune. Because of his honor, van Worden refuses to abandon his faith; they continue their amorous designs, and though they do not persuade him to convert, they do lure him into their bed. A few hours later, van Worden awakes to the shocking realization that he is lying beneath the gibbet with two hanged bandits swinging above him.

Thus begins a series of encounters between van Worden and others who have also had encounters with either a pair of beautiful women or handsome men. Each tells their story throughout a series of ten days, often within their own stories, relating other stories of people who also have experienced the delights and terrors of the valley. Here is an excerpt of the story told by Zoto, the last of the three brothers who has yet to be hanged:

...Eventually my successes [as a bandit] caused offence at court. The Governor of Cadiz was given orders to take us dead or alive, and sent several regiments after us. Meanwhile, the Grand Sheikh of the Gomelez invited me to enter his service and offered me refuge in this cavern. I accepted without hesitation.

The Court at Granada refused to accept failure. Seeing we could not be found, it had two shepherds from the valley seized and hanged as Zoto's brothers. I knew those two men and I know they committed several murders. Yet they are said to be angry at having been hanged in our stead and at night slip free of the gallows in order to cause chaos. I have never been witness to any of this and I don't know what to say about it. However, it is true that I happen to have passed close by the gallows at night on several occasions, and when there was moonlight I saw clearly that the two hanged men were not there, and in the morning they were back again.

And that, honored guests, is the story you asked me to tell...

We end up later with reasons to doubt his version of the story, but other reasons to believe it. The family of Gomelez appears in various stories, as do a pious hermit and his demoniac patient named Pacheco, Moorish pirates, swashbuckling bandits, bishops and princes, and dozens more colorful characters, each one's stories adding more fantastic pieces to the narrative whole.

To Each His (or Her) Own Temptation

Most of the stories told involve the storyteller relating the steps which led to their encounter with the two "evil spirits", and they nearly always involve the two spirits offering to the storyteller some thing they desire. For van Worden, it was the treasure and prestige of a marrying back into the Gomelez family, but in order to do so, he had to abandon his faith. For another storyteller, it was the promise of fulfillment of a gnostic prophecy, though they had to violate the precepts of well-known cabbalistic practices in order to fulfill it. Again and again, each storyteller awakes beneath the gibbet after succumbing to temptation.

The pious hermit plays an interesting role in the story--he has not encountered the women himself, though his demon-possessed charge Pacheco has. After hearing van Worden relate his experiences, he begins to challenge him frequently to confess his sins to God, a recommendation van Worden receives coolly at best, thinking it an affront to his honor to ever ask for forgiveness. The situation repeats itself several times, and even by the end of the book, van Worden is still interested in "learning more information" about the nature of these women, as are most of the other people touched by their wickedness. The cast of storytellers increases, and more are drawn into the story. The book ends with an offer to continue the story if "this one is well received."

Gnosticism and Cabbalism

The author of the book is well-versed in the traditions of cabbalism (or the qabbalah or the kabbalah), and the last sequence of stories brings this into clear focus. A brother and sister, both high masters of the gnostic "sciences" are also tempted by the gibbet-demons, and are drawn into more interest in them because none of their powers will reveal their nature or subject them to the cabbalists' will. True to form, both of the cabbalists end the book with an ever-increasing thirst for the knowledge that is, by their own admission, for things men were not meant to know. Also interesting to note, the only person not to fall prey to the decadent and carnal charms of the demons was the cabbalist woman, who at the moment she was about to give in, uttered an incantation that shattered their spell over her. Other reviewers have sought deeper connections to gnostic thought, but such were lost on me.

19th Century "Eroticism"?

In reading about this book from other reviewers, I discovered that many consider this book to be a form of eroticism in its earliest incarnations. But if titillation was the aim of the author (even for the 1800's), then he seemed to be half-hearted about it. This is nothing like the ribald stories of the Decameron and others, exploring the humanist side of a new world of Enlightenment freedom. Rather, in this book, those who succumb to the carnal passions are drawn into a narrative that begins to move them along of its own accord, while others (like the pious hermit) attempt to forestall it. There is an ominous nature to the pleasures of the flesh, even if Potocki drew each individual episode in more candor than is common for literature of his era. This is no book celebrating sexual adventure.


The Manuscript Found in Saragossa is a book that is historically interesting, magnificently written, and a marvel of literary genius when placed in its context. It is a short read, weighing in at less that 160 pages counting a painstaking introduction by Brian Stableford. For those who prize inventive literary structures like those of the Decameron or the 1001 Nights, or even the complex devices of writers like Italo Calvino, this is a must-read. For others more interested in contemporary fantasy and its tropes, the story might wander a bit or lack the punch of modern supernatural or fantastic literature.

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