Sunday, June 06, 2010

The manuscript

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, by Jan Potocki, is a weird slice of literature, and I'm pleased that it has not fallen into complete obscurity.

The narrator, a Walloon officer on his way to Madrid, recounts the 66 days of his journey. While he does share the actual events he experiences, most of the book consists of the stories told by the people he encounters along the way, and the stories of the characters within those stories.

The novel is about 200 pages too long for my liking. At just past halfway, I found myself sympathizing with the geometer:

As soon as he left, Velásquez spoke and said, "I have tried in vain to concentrate all my attention on the gypsy chief's words but I am unable to discover any coherence whatsoever in them. I do not know who is speaking and who is listening. Sometimes the Marqués de Val Florida is telling the story of his life to his daughter, sometimes it is she who is relating it to the gyspy chief, who in turn is repeating it to us. It is a veritable labyrinth. I had always thought that novels and other works of that kind should be written in several columns like chronological tables."

The tales are labyrinthine; some intersect, others lead nowhere. The book as a whole strikes me as experimental. Potocki is playing with the form of his stories within stories, and quite consciously and deliberately, to mess with the readers' expectations regarding chronology and the conventions of traditional narrative.

Potocki experiments with style as much as with form. The stories are by turns picaresque and gothic, some historical, other faintly erotic. Most have to do with a sense of honour in the pursuit of romance and fortune.

There are some wonderful philosophical digressions, for example, on what is to be human and on the nature of faith. Indeed, religion plays a fairly significant role: we encounter the Inquisition and a secret Muslim society; the fellow travellers include a cabbalist and the Wandering Jew; many of the tales demonstrate resistance to conversion to another faith, even while characters at times struggle with their faith and confront the supernatural. It seems to me that Potocki regarded all religions as equal, and readily incorporated mystical elements into his understanding of God.

One character sets about expanding the academic work he'd previously assembled in The Secrets of Analysis Revealed, together with the Science of Infinite Dimensions. He proceeds then to classify all human knowledge in 100 volumes, and Potocki enumerates all 100 fields. The hundredth volume is devoted to analysis, "which, according to Hervas, was the science of sciences and marked the extreme limit of human knowledge." It's a bizarre exercise that does nothing to move the story forward but in itself is delightful food for thought.

The novel was filmed by Wojciech Has in 1965 (the whole of which can be seen on Youtube — I haven't watched more than a fragment, but it looks promising).

I can't recall how I came to learn of this book. It's a bit esoteric and slow-going at times; it's definitely not for everyone. The tales make for good bedtime reading, but it's really easy to lose sight of the whole of this book, so I can't really say if it amounts to more than the sum of its parts. However, the parts taken individually are both entertaining and provocative, and the structure and style give this 200-year-old novel the unique flavour of being ancient and modern at the same time.

"The Mystical Count," in The Fortean Times.


Malgwyn said...

Potocki's novel is a tough read, there should be some sort of banner or award for anyone who finishes it. Potocki is concealing things in the text, the territory described doesn't match any map. The only handholds to be found are the offhand references to real texts and authors. And from some of the topics you can discerne that Potocki is familiar with several rare works; "The Book of Enoch", the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Thrice Great", "The Poimandres" are noticable.

Isabella said...

I think my reading was at a pretty superficial level, Malgwyn. But it appears to be a treasure trove of esoterica. I can imagine quickly getting lost in following down the references. I suspect I'll be revisiting this work in future years.

I'm editing this post to include a link to more background on Potocki.

Are you suggesting that Potocki was encoding a sort of message?

Malgwyn said...

I can only say what I think it contains. There is a lot of material that pertains to the Order of Saint John of Malta, and it's culture of honor, erotic intrigue, and a few odd symbolic descriptions of penitents (which looks like initiatory drama material to me).

The interludes with Germanicus and Ahasuerus is notable: Germanicus is the Count of Saint Germaine, the initiator of Cagliostro, who creates the Egyptian Rite of Masonry.

Ahasuerus is both the "Wandering Jew" and Xerxes. Referentially that is interesting in the Masonic Light of Chevalier Ramsay's "Travels with Cyrus".
Both texts develop an alternate history of Judeo-Christianity based upon knowledge acquired in the East.

What is needed now is a closer look at the earliest French version's of the story. I'd like to get a group together of people interested in this text to dissect it more.