Gothic Metafiction: A Review of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potocki

9 min read

by Anthony Perconti

Count Jan Potocki seems like he stepped out of a grand piece of adventure fiction. This Polish noble was a mover and a shaker on the European stage during the late Enlightenment era. During his sweeping and storied life, Potocki amassed a larger than life CV, which included being one of the first aeronauts, a novice Knight of Malta, an army officer engineer, a political activist (to a variety of causes), an ethnographical researcher, a publisher and a supposed freemason.

Judging by the milestones that he achieved throughout his lifetime, it is plain to see that Potocki was a restless individual. This was a man who exemplified the Age of Reason paradigm of all knowledge is worth knowing. Even the matter of his death was a (dark) reflection of his grandiose life. There are varying accounts of the tale but story goes that this polymath crafted a silver bullet from the knob of his teapot (or the handle of a sugar bowl), had it blessed by the castle chaplain, retreated to his library and shot himself in the head.

In addition to all of these lifetime accomplishments, this Saint Germain like adventurer also wrote a novel. The Manuscript Found in Saragossa is Potocki’s contribution to the world of literature and much like his life, it contains multitudes. A sprawling entertainment that touches upon a wide variety of genres. His steadfast curiosity and thirst for new and novel experiences certainly imbued his writings, especially with regards to his fiction. The Manuscript is unabashedly informed by Potocki’s myriad interests, concerns, and travels; in essence a fictional mélange of his life’s enthusiasm. A book that mirrors a life remarkably lived. A work that at its heart, combines aspects of the philosophic, gothic, adventure and arabesque, into an exhilarating piece of weird fiction or as the nameless French officer states; “It was all about brigands, ghosts and cabalists; nothing could be more suitable to divert my mind from the rigors of the campaign than to read a novel full of strange adventures.

Jan Potocki

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa follows in the time-honored tradition that spans the breadth of world literature through the course of history, that of the frame narrative. Potocki’s opus stands directly on the shoulders of such literary giants that were constructing such frame narratives well before the Nineteenth Century. This is a work on par with the likes of Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, Antoine Galland’s translation/adaptation of One Thousand and One Nights, and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

An overarching metanarrative, contained within it, a legion of smaller stories. This frame sequence accretes layer upon layer of narrative upon itself. It goes deeper and deeper as you keep turning the pages of the novel. The introductory layer, in the book’s foreword, takes place in 1809, when a Napoleonic officer finds several handwritten journals in an abandoned house in the captured Spanish town of Saragossa. The nameless officer is then captured by Spanish forces and his warden agrees to translate the found journals into French. The Spaniard is grateful to do so, as the found manuscripts relate a family history from the previous century.

The remainder of The Manuscript revolves around the second narrative layer that of Walloon Guard officer, Alphonse van Worden. In 1739, the young man is traversing the Sierra Morena, on his way to Madrid to join his regiment. It is this narrative thread that is the keystone to all the others. The Manuscript is the diary that van Worden kept during his sixty six-day sojourn in which he transcribes his various encounters with his fellow travelers. Each chapter represents a single day’s journal entry. These encounters are the backbone of the book; the interactions are what gives this novel its sense of wonder and conversely, depending upon the nature of the interaction, dread.

This Matryoshka chain reaction forces the reader deeper into the novel’s narrative substructure. These bookish acrobatics are usually associated with Twentieth Century literary fiction practitioners such as Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Salman Rushdie, Thomas Pynchon, and Mark Z. Danielewski.

Take for example, when early in his odyssey (at the conclusion of the first day), van Worden exhaustedly drifts off into unconsciousness in the salacious embrace of his cousins (within a lucid dream no less), the two Moorish beauties, Emina and Zubeida. “When at length I awoke, the sun was burning my eyelids…How can I express in words the horror which filled me then? I was lying below the gibbet of Los Hermanos. The corpses of Zoto’s two brothers were not hanging from it but were lying on either side of me. I had apparently spent the night with them. I was lying on pieces of rope, fragments of wheels and human remains and the revolting rags which had fallen from them as they had rotted.” Just like that, the novel pivots from a hypnotic amorous encounter, straight into the realm of nightmare.

“The Manuscript Found in Saragossa” contains an embarrassment of riches in this regard; narrative threads shift focus constantly, allowing Potcoki to dabble in different story modes. When a character takes center stage and begins relating their tale, it is not initially apparent where the narrative thread will lead. This is where much of the book’s excitement is derived. The reader (much like Alphonse) is at the mercy of the narrator (or more to the point, narrators). It is best just to get comfortable and let the anecdotal tide pull you in and take you where it may. And much like Scheherazade, Potocki knows how to reel the reader in; he gives just enough flavor, just enough color to hook you. And once hooked, the reader is forced to ‘come back’ the next day (or as is the case, the next chapter) to find out what happens next.

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa is a novel that relishes in the art of the narrative cliff-hanger; these are tall tales being relayed and one can imagine, performed, with gusto and flourish to rapt listeners around the cook fire after la cena.

Ian Maclean, from his highly informative introduction states; “Potocki seems at one time to thought of his work as a Gothic novel…and indeed there is no shortage of macabre, sinister, ghastly and horrific events; but it also has affinities with many other literary modes; the picaresque…the adventure story, in its evocation of inexhaustible gold mines and grand international conspiracies; the pastoral in its disabused portrayal of court life and its celebration of the beauties of nature; the libertine novel, in its imaginative exploration of the erotic; the conte philopsophique…the fantastic, in its intermingling of the supernatural and the ordinary.” This novel is absolutely comfortable and I would go so far as to state, fascinated in exhibiting numinous personages such as possessed men (Pacheco the demoniac) and Ahasuerus the Wandering Jew, casually coexisting with more quotidian members of Eighteenth Century society including geometers, court nobles, soldiers and gypsy chiefs. This is all grist for the mill in service to the overarching metanarrative.

This repetitious serialized structure is meant (in my view) to reinforce the fact that The Manuscript is, among other things, a ‘road’ novel; a story about an extended journey (including the stops and starts along the way). This must be taken in the greater context with a relationship to the Spanish landscape. The rugged environment of the Sierra Morena (according to Potocki), is riddled with hidden caves, bizarrely weathered rock formations, mountain passes, and traveler’s inns (Ventas). This rustic Spanish setting is an inter-zone of sorts. Hinterlands where a wide swath of society engages in the intercourse of some sort; as traveling companions, sometimes as lovers, in sharing meals and especially in sharing stories. This rustic inter-zone reflects the greater Mediterranean world (and the late Enlightenment era society in general). Jews, Muslims, Christians, non-believers, and rationalists travel together, cheek by jowl, exchanging ideologies and dogmas. The Manuscript is a distillate or cross-section of Enlightenment-era society condensed down into six hundred and thirty pages; where a profusion of ideas (along with their proponents and detractors) are constantly engaged in a dialectic. A book where differing perspectives and worldviews are the lingua franca. An ‘anything goes’ piece of fiction, reflective of its time. All of these disparate traveler’s tales present a complex and nuanced mosaic of the Eighteenth Century Mediterranean world.

While reading The Manuscript, I was impressed (and pleasantly surprised) by the fact that a novel that was written in the early Nineteenth Century, reads like a thoroughly modern work. A striking feature that Potocki employs time and again within the framing sequence is that of first-person narration. When van Worden documents a story that was told to him, he recounts that character’s tale in the first person. Potocki adds an extra layer of narrative complexity when these secondary characters begin recounting stories told to them. These tales are also delivered in the first person; thereby creating a vertiginous effect upon the person reading the book (or at least this person). This Matryoshka chain reaction forces the reader deeper into the novel’s narrative substructure. These bookish acrobatics are usually associated with Twentieth Century literary fiction practitioners such as Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Salman Rushdie, Thomas Pynchon and Mark Z. Danielewski. This devious narrative arrangement lends The Manuscript a decidedly postmodern feel.

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa is a dark reflection of the classic frame structure, written for connoisseurs of all things outré. In essence, a labyrinthine, weird fiction version of The Decameron. When I first delved into The Manuscript several years ago, it took me a bit of time to get into the tone of the novel. The serialized staccato structure of the narrative(s), with their continuous pauses and recommencements were initially jarring.

Stick with it though, The Manuscript rewards reader endurance. After the first fifty pages or so, I became accustomed to the intentional ‘choppiness’ of the novel. Looking back on it, I would contend, this is one of its functions (albeit, an ancillary one). This entertaining book prides itself on near endless digressions and a continually bifurcating set of narratives. This “novel of strange adventures” seems tailor made for fans of fantastic fiction and the postmodern literary set.

The more I contemplate his opus, the more convinced I am that the Count should stand among the company of such dark fabulists as William Beckford, Arthur Machen and Clark Ashton Smith. All practitioners of the uncanny and baroque. Did Potocki create a new subgenre? Perhaps gothic arabesque? Philosophical travelogue? Who knows? What I can say with certainty however, is that The Manuscript Found in Saragossa is a multi-layered kaleidoscopic masterpiece. A manifold story machine to get lost in. Or in the words of Alphonse van Worden; “I do not know how often I passed from one sweet illusion to the other.”

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