Sunday, December 13, 2009

Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse

Even though I read this book when I was young, the return to it in my fifties, and the reading of the final chapters in Paris was a kind of circular literature experience I did not predict to touch me so deeply in the end of 2009...

"Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse" or "The Saragossa Manuscript" is an epic novel originally written in French in the beginning of XIX century. Its author, Jan Potocki was Polish nobleman, off-spring of famous lordly Potocki family, which was so important in the history of Poland. The family was far from being a dull aristocratic dynasty - see a note about Walentyn Potocki as an example.

Jan Potocki was highly educated person, known as ethnologist, Egyptologist and a linguist. He wrote in French. It is interesting to find that the final complete edition of the French original was published only in ... 2006.

"The Saragossa Manuscript" is a frame-tale story. In modern literature it was one of the first, preceding Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights by more than 30 years. Critics compared "The Manuscript" to The Decameron and to The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, but Potocki story telling is much more elaborated and convoluted, with stories told in parallel, stories within stories, sometimes going to the fourth level of nesting, or stories affecting the other stories on different planes of narration ... This very construction make the reading not only pleasant but also intellectually challenging experience.


In the factual setting, the story is located in the Napoleonic war times, when a French officer, after the fall of Saragossa, discovers an XVIII century manuscript describing the life of young officer of Wallon Guard - Alphonse van Worden. The plot described in this manuscript form the most of the book.

Being the officer of the Wallon Guard, the famous catholic formation from southern Belgium, he happened to be the only surviving male of fictional Muslim Gomelez family. The family members, hiding in caves of Sierra Morena mountains, predicting the glooming future of their Shi'a dynasty, organized intricate probation for Alphonse, driving him through ecstatic erotic experiences, inquisition tortures and metaphysical and philosophical conundrums, rooted in Jewish Kabbalah, Dervish and Gypsy stories, enlightened science and history of the region. The challenge was to test Alphonse honor, loyalty to his faith, ability to keep secrets and integrity. This part of the story is written with such level of realism, that even modern reader is completely surprised when, at the end of the narration, the true is finally revealed to Alphonse. It is also written with true love for diversity and cultures. Christian, Jewish, Gypsy and Muslim heroes of the stories are pictured with equal admiration and respect…


In almost 700 pages of the book, you will also find a lot of philosophical deliberations. Some of them ponder on the nature of the mind and the difference between human and animal intellect. Some of Potocki's thoughts are surprisingly modern...

I must admit, when it comes to storytelling and imagination, Potocki XIX century novel surpasses by an order of magnitude that of Don Brown's XXI century narration. He could be a teacher for all who write about secret societies and mysterious events alike. You never get impression of a naiveté of the author knowledge.


I have been reading this book in audio, in the translation from French to the mother tongue of the author. When finished I watched the entire 1965 black & white film by Wojciech Has. This was culmination of my adventure with Potocki and his book.


FYI, I was once honored to talk to late Wojciech Has, when I gave lectures in the Lodz Film Academy. I also know very well the locations the film was set - as it was an area for my climbing training in my youth. I can only pity that there are no English subtitles on YouTube complete set of episodes from the movie... :





No comments:

Post a Comment