Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What you may find in Saragossa

She opened the door and we found ourselves in underground vaults, beyond which was what looked like a silver lake, but was actually a lake of quicksilver. The princess clapped her hands, and a boat propelled by a yellow dwarf appeared. We stepped into the boat, and I saw that the dwarf's face was of gold, with diamond eyes and a coral mouth. In other words it was an automaton who rowed through the quicksilver with his little oars and skilfully made the boat skim along. This novel pilot took us to the foot of a rock whch opened up to allow us to pass into another chamber, in which there was the amazing spectacle of countless other automata: peacocks spreading enamel tails which were studded with jewels, parrots with emeralds for plumage flying above our heads, negroes made of ebony proffering golden platters laden with ruby cherries and sapphire grapes. There were numerous other astonishing objects in these magical vaults which stretched further than the eye could see.

At that moment I was unaccountably tempted to repeat the word "paradise" to see what effect it would have on the princess. I yielded to this fatal curiosity and said, "Signora, one can truthfully say that you are living in paradise on earth."

The princess smiled in the most charming manner and said, "So that you can better judge the delights of this place, I shall introduce to you my six ladies-in-waiting."

She took a golden key from her belt and opened a huge chest which was covered in black velvet and decorated with solid silver.

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 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.

— from The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, by Jan Potocki.

It was written around 1800 in French by a Polish nobleman, but wasn't published in its entirety during his lifetime.

It's a novel of frames. Kind of like Arabian Nights, with a touch of Don Quixote about it (for its adventuring and metaphysical aspects), and maybe even Perec's Life A User's Manual (not sure exactly why — some of the flavour has seeped from one reading to the other), only more macabre. Loving it!
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