Sunday, 19 February 2012

Jan Potocki:The Manuscript Found in Saragossa

When the chest was opened, a skeleton appeared, who came towards me in a menacing way. I drew my sword. The skeleton ripped off its left arm, and, using it as a weapon, launched a furious attack on me. I put up a good fight, but a second skeleton emerged from the chest, tore a rib off the the first skeleton and hit me over the head with it. I grabbed it by the throat but it clasped me in its fleshless arms and tried to throw me to the ground. I managed to get clear of it, but a third skeleton emerged from the trunk to join the other two. Then the other three appeared. Seeing no chance of coming away alive from so unequal a combat, I fell to my knees and begged the princess to spare me.
   The princess ordered the skeletons to return to the chest, then said, 'Romati, never forget as long as you live what you have seen here.'
   As she said this she grasped my arm. I felt it burn to the bone and I fainted.
This story is told by Giulio Romati to the gypsy chief Avadoro in a Spanish inn. Or rather it is being retold by Avadoro in the gypsy camp. to Alphonse van Worden, a young Belgian on his way to take up a commission in the Spanish army. Alphonse's story is part of a manuscript found by a French army officer after the siege of Saragossa in 1809, and supposedly written some decades earlier. The whole nest of stories constitutes the novel called the Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potocki. As a matter of fact, as Alphonse points out to Avadoro, the story of Giulio Romati, the ghostly princess and her retinue of skeletons comes from a collection of stories by a writer called Happel or Happelius. Saragossa is nothing if not intertextual, an anthology of weird, comic and sensational tales from across Europe. Like its modern British descendant, Robert Irwin's The Arabian Nightmare, it delights in the multiplicity of narrative, the way stories can hide inside other stories. And for Potocki as for Irwin dreams are stories too, the two used almost interchangeably to challenge our sense of reality.

Alphonse's journey to his regiment takes him across dangerous country. A bandit chief called Zoro has been terrorizing the area and is still at large, though his two brothers have been hanged and are now dangling grotesquely from a gibbet in a remote valley in the mountains. Alphonse's servants disappear, and he is forced to put up for the night at an abandoned inn. Lying in the dark he hears a clock strike midnight, the prelude to the first of his adventures. He is taken by a black maid to meet two beautiful Moorish women who are apparently staying at the inn in a luxurious room. They entertain him lavishly and tell him (of course) their story. They are Emina and Zubeida, daughters of the Great Sheikh of the Gomelez, who ruled this area in the days of the Moorish hegemony in Spain. Furthermore, there are related to Alphonse himself, cousins on his mother's side. Leaving aside the ties of kinship, he is infatuated with them, and promises on his honour as an officer never to reveal the details of their encounter. They part, he falls asleep - and wakes underneath the gibbet with the two brothers of Zoro dangling above him.

Are Emina and Zubeida what they seem, or are they demons, or the ghosts of the two hanged bandits? Alphonse meets a possessed man who has had a similar encounter; the mysterious women turn up again, and their flirtation becomes more serious. Encounters dissolve into dreams, and dreams keep leading him to the gibbet with its two corpses. Alphonse meets the gypsies, only to find that Avadoro's daughters bear an uncanny resemblance to Emina and Zubeida. Everyone has a story to tell and every story seems to have another one inside it.

Saragossa may sound like a work of postmodern metafiction, but it was written in the early nineteenth century. Potocki was a wealthy Polish aristocrat, a pioneer of Egyptology and ethnology, who established an independent press and reading room as well as flying over Warsaw in a hot-air balloon, and is said to have committed suicide with a silver bullet he forged himself out of his sugar bowl. The book is a compendium of Gothic themes, a guided tour of the state of supernatural fiction in the Romantic Age (gaining much of its effectiveness from the dry, understated style in which it relates extraordinary events), but it's also a document of the European Enlightenment, shrewdly interrogating the dreamy values of an old superstitious Europe to see what they amount to in the morning light. It's no coincidence that the basic story is set in Spain, with its ancient ideals of chivalry and honour. Spain is on the edge of Europe, and, as the story of the Great Sheikh of the Gomelez reminds us, has a complex religious and cultural heritage. The encounters and stories constantly pit Christian Europe against its Others, gypsies, Muslims and Jews (Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew, is an important character). Bizarre as the stories are, they often begin unsensationally with an account of the narrator's upbringing; Potocki, in a thoroughly Enlightened way, is exploring the influence of education on an individual's life and character. At the centre of this exploration is Alphonse himself, whose father, an obsessive duellist, has brought him up to believe that honour and courage are the most important manly values. Saragossa is Alphonse's bildungsroman, his madly elaborate coming-of-age story, at the end of which he will realize that honour is not an infallible guide to behaviour and that, in a world where nothing is what it seems, reason is of more use.

I have now covered ten titles in White Threshold, starting with the historical epic The Man on a Donkey, and concluding with another equally grand epic, the first pre-twentieth-century, non-English-language title I have covered. I'm taking a break now, after which I hope to have some news about the future of the blog.

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