The Manuscript Found in Barcelona:
An Essay on Jan Potocki’s
Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Summer 2002
“If a man could pass through Paradise in a dream, and have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his soul had really been there, and if he found that flower in his hand when he awoke—Ay!—and what then?”
This kind of textual/existential confusion lies at the heart of Jan Potocki’s vast novel, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa—and at the heart of my relationship with that novel. Like an infinite series of circumstances laid out by an infinitely patient novelist with the sole object of delivering Potocki’s book into my hands—or me into the hands of Potocki’s book—the events of the last few years strangely echo the fictions illustrated in that book’s all-encompassing labyrinth. As in The Trial, or Gravity’s Rainbow, or any number of Borges stories, the paranoia factor is high, and since the book describes a manuscript that takes into account its own discovery, I’m not so sure that I’m not just a player in Potocki’s constantly unfolding game.
It all began when I went to see Wojciech Has’ film The Saragossa Manuscript. A Polish friend had been raving to me about it for years, calling it the Polish equivalent of The Wizard of Oz, and when I walked out of the theater after seeing it I felt that not only was it The Wizard of Oz, but Citizen Kane, The Seventh Seal, Lawrence of Arabia, Blazing Saddles, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Pulp Fiction as well. It had almost everything you could ever want in a film: swordfights, dreams, lost manuscripts, conspiracies, inquisitions, stories-within-stories, lusty men and women (in fantastic combinations), ghosts, absolutely amazing scenery, and nearly infinite—and infinitely looping—digressions. It was the true neverending story. The only things missing were the Technicolor and the singing and dancing, but even without them, I walked out of the theater stunned.
I was sure that the film was in some way derived from Borges, though, with so much of the conspiracy/manuscript/story-within-story material reminding me of “The Garden of Forking Paths” and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” As in any good Borges story, the theater program gave no information other than that the film was made in 1965, which coincides with the height of Borges’ international fame, so I just shrugged, classified it in my brain as a great Borgesian film, and proceeded to rave about it to anyone who would listen. But a few months later, I heard from another friend that the movie had been made from a Polish novel—which intrigued me because I wondered how Borges could have infiltrated the Polish literary landscape so quickly and produced such a thoroughly Borgesian novel before 1965. I didn’t feel in any hurry to pursue the matter further, though—wanting, I guess, to keep the film as unsullied as possible by what I thought might have been a derivative novel.
The next turn in the labyrinth came when I was in Spain. I’d recently set out on a long trip across Europe and had begun to see what I later learned were Potockian patterns cropping up everywhere: amazing coincidences, wildly convoluted sequences of circumstance, weird repetitions and variations, people coming in and out of my life with dreamlike rapidity—and all of it depending on whether a churchbell woke me up fifteen minutes early or the bakery was closed or the bus schedule made me too late to get into the hostel where I would have met such-and-such a person and gone on such-and-such an adventure. It was as if every step I took and every decision I made were weighted with the infinity of all of my possible futures—or else that it was just all preordained and that my feeling of autonomy was simply an illusion. Since I kept being reminded of the cross-country labyrinth in The Saragossa Manuscript—and since I was nearing the point where I was going to have to decide if I was going to visit Saragossa or not—I just couldn’t get the film out of my mind. I never made it to Saragossa—it was way out of the way from where chance had landed me, and I needed to head north before it got too cold—and so after six weeks in Spain, I decided that Barcelona and Figueres would be my last cities before entering France.
In Barcelona I was having that eschatological feeling you get when you’re about to leave a country (I also had that scatological feeling you get after eating bad food), and one morning, as I made my way to Parc Güell, feeling as if I were somehow on the edge of something, I decided to take an early-morning side-trip before seeing Gaudi’s gaudy fantasy land. I needed to trade in my copy of Cormac McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain before I read it a third time, and there was supposedly a second-hand English bookstore somewhere near the Lesseps Metro stop, so I made my way down the streets, sad to be leaving Spain after seeing such a small fraction of what there was to see, and then sat myself on the stoop and waited for the bookstore to open. The owner arrived seconds later, and after I helped her open the store and turn on the lights and feed the cat, I went straight to the fiction section. Scanning the spines at random, the first title I saw, right next to The Chosen and Swann’s Way, was The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. I didn’t quite believe it at first, thinking it was just a mis-shelved travel book about Aragón, but when I picked it up, there it was in my very own hands: the novel I didn’t know I was looking for.
I bought it, not quite convinced it was real, but I didn’t read it right away. I was reading the Bible (a great book for traveling), and I decided to read the Deuteronomic Histories (Joshua through Kings) before starting something new. So I passed through Figueres (where I saw Salvador Dali’s Rainy Taxi, the namesake of this very magazine) and then slowly made my way to Paris, where I finally fell into The Manuscript.
In addition to the amazing contents of the book (which I’ll get to soon, I swear), the history of Potocki and his novel is perhaps a novel in itself. Count Jan Potocki (pronounced “Pototski”) was born in 1761—almost 150 years before Borges—and like his English equivalent Sir Richard Burton, he was a legendary figure and swashbuckling renaissance man: a writer, publisher, traveler, political activist, aristocrat, soldier, Knight of Malta, freemason, occultist, historian, linguist, and daredevil. Outside of Poland he’s probably best known for his work in ethnology, which he more or less pioneered, and inside Poland he’s best known for his one novel, which he wrote in French and which was only translated into Polish after he died.
What we know of Potocki’s personal life is shrouded in myth. He was married twice, divorced once (a very big deal), and both his marriages were rife with scandal—possibly including incest. He traveled widely, wrote and studied incessantly, accepted a perplexingly varied array of political appointments, and espoused sometimes irreconcilably divergent philosophies. And in 1815, depending on what source you believe, he took his life on either December 2nd (my ex-wife’s birthday) or December 11th (my birthday), after fashioning a silver bullet from the knob of a teapot (or perhaps a sugar-bowl) and having it blessed by his castle’s chaplain.
The history of his novel is just as bewildering. He wrote it in French and published it in bits over the last few years of his life, and he appears to have finished it in 1814 and published it in its complete form in Paris. But when he died the novel somehow fell out of circulation in France. At least three plagiarisms and one lawsuit ensued, and there are some scholars who even maintain that Potocki isn’t the author of the book we have today. What’s known for certain is that somehow all the complete copies of the French original have been lost. There’s about a fifth of the book missing, so what scholars have had to do is retranslate the Polish translation of those sections back into French. Thus the current English translation has parts that have been translated three different times—from French to Polish to French to English, the whole process spanning more than 175 years.
After all this prelude, I was almost ready to be disappointed by the novel, but within just a page or two, all the world outside its pages suddenly seemed like a feeble appetizer—a “Chopsticks” warmup for The Goldberg Variations, or a Vanity Fair blurb on the cover of Lolita. Suddenly the book eclipsed not just the film, but my own weird journey toward the book, the book’s publication history, and even Potocki’s own story. Or rather it simply encompassed it all.
Initially narrated by an unnamed French officer, the book begins with the story of how he found the novel that we’re about to read. During the Napoleonic Wars, he was looting in the captured town of Saragossa when he discovered a manuscript in an abandoned house. He doesn’t know much Spanish, but he knows enough to see that the book tells the story of “brigands, ghosts, and cabbalists” and that it might prove entertaining in the future. Soon afterward, the officer gets captured by the enemy, and when a Spanish captain sees the book and realizes that it tells the story of one of his ancestors, he takes the narrator into his house, treats him as his guest, and translates the book into French to keep him entertained.
The novel then moves directly into the manuscript—and into another first-person account, which it does whenever it enters any new story or frame—and tells the story of Alphonse van Worden, a young Walloon officer on his way to join his regiment in Madrid. It’s 1739, and to get to Madrid he has to pass through the as yet unsettled Sierra Morena mountain range, which is supposedly rife with bandits and lost spirits and against which everyone warns him. Undaunted, he goes anyway. He spends his first night in what seems to be a deserted venta, and at midnight, startled by the entrance of a servant, he’s led deep into the bowels of the building and introduced to two beautiful Moorish women who claim to be his long-lost cousins. And when they begin telling him their story, the book begins a dreamlike descent into its labyrinth of stories-within-stories-within-stories-within-dreams-about-dreams-within-stories.
Clearly influenced by The Decameron (it was often billed as “The New Decameron”) and by the Arabian Nights (which as an Egyptologist, Potocki may have read in the original) as well as by Apuleius’ proto-Picaresque The Golden Ass (which is the earliest extant example in Western literature of a prose narrative built around storytelling), The Manuscript Found in Saragossa is one of the most complexly structured novels I’ve ever read. A hypertext in almost every sense, its every page is linked to every other, and even the most attentive reader will have to leaf back through the book constantly to remember who’s telling what story about whom. Even the characters themselves get exasperated at how complex the whole thing is. But by some miracle, it’s also one of the most readable novels I’ve ever read. Like the film it inspired, it’s an overwhelmingly entertaining work, and its breathlessly unaffected narration keeps the pages turning constantly. Even when it deals with the most mind-bogglingly arcane topics, it manages to sweep the reader along with it, dazzled but eager for more.
Part of Potocki’s appeal is his incredible ability to unsettle. Like Kafka or Pynchon—or Shakespeare—he has an uncanny knack for creeping the reader out, as if he’s manipulating your dreams and fascinations into the most horrible (and horribly enticing) combinations. Descending into its underground labyrinth, the reader is treated to all manner of sexual and religious and familial weirdness. As in Angela Carter’s Wise Children, doubles abound and ambiguities flourish, and as in Kafka, the protagonist is constantly waking up from his nightmare and finding himself in another. After van Worden’s first night with his cousins, who try to convert him to Islam so they can marry him, he wakes up under a gallows next to a dead man—the brother of one of the story’s innumerable brigands—and as he eventually falls into the stories of Pacheco the demoniac and Ahasuerus the Wandering Jew and Pandesowna the gypsy chief, he almost invariably ends up under the same gallows, not sure if it’s all over or if it’s just beginning again.
The novel takes place over sixty-six days of storytelling (a nice mathematical compromise between The Decameron’s ten and The Arabian Nights’ 1001), and as the stories cross and descend and recross and form parallels and ascend to link up with any number of the other spiraling narratives, van Worden slowly discovers himself to be at the center of a vast, labyrinthine conspiracy—a conspiracy that’s as surreal and paranoiac and symmetrically stagy as anything in Ficciones or The Crying of Lot 49 or The Truman Show. Van Worden is the novel’s main character and narrator, but as the book sets itself up around him, he also seems to be its main audience. All the bizarre repetitions—the stories about stories, the dreams about dreams, the absolutely stunning sexual variations—start to seem like a kind of game staged for van Worden’s sake (or perhaps like a novel written with him as the main character). Vast conspiracies may come a dime a dozen in the age of Pynchon, but in the early nineteenth century, the influence of Kafka and Borges had yet to inform (and warp) the novelist’s palette of themes. And since so much of the novel’s emphasis is on the gamey artifices of the realities and fictions that surround van Worden, the book prefigures even the metafictional innovation of novels like If on a winter’s night a traveler and films like The Player.
A truly all-encompassing novel, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa seems to absorb every frame and level and era of readership that enters into it, not only planning for its “discovery” by the French soldier and his Spanish captor, but also seeming to plan for my discovery and reading of it 200 years later in Spain and France. Indeed, as I found myself caught up in the book’s labyrinths, I felt that my reading experience in Paris—the city that the novel had disappeared from—had somehow been taken into account. And so when I read the news that the film’s director, Wojciech Has, died on October 3, 2000—midway through my reading of the novel—I knew that The Manuscript Found in Saragossa was Coleridge’s flower and that I was one of its characters.