Jan Potocki and the Manuscript Found in Saragossa

In the early 18th century Antoine Galland completed what is considered the first European translation of The Thousand and One Nights. To say The Nights captured the popular imagination is an understatement. Count Jan Potocki, a Polish soldier and polymath with a fascination for the occult and secret societies, was one such individual inspired by the translation and crafted his own set of tales in the Galland fashion: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.

This book tells the story of a soldier, Alphonse van Worden, who is traveling to Madrid and along the way encounters bandits, cabbalists, scientists, ghosts, the Inquisition, gypsies, and a pair of alluring Muslim princesses who may or may not be his distant cousins. What is real, what is story, and what is dream become so confused that the result achieves an irreverent blend of fantasy and Gothic romanticism. The book’s heroes are not only at odds with the forces of law and order but also with the structures of narrative and plot. There is van Worden’s frame story as he tries to reach Madrid, then there are the stories he encounters on his journey, and then there are the stories within those stories until finally nothing is certain.

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa was published in sections over the course of years. The first and what is commonly considered the most self-contained segment takes place over sixty-six nights as Alphonse makes his way through the Sierra Morena Mountains and has his first encounters with the bandits, cabbalists, gypsies, etc. The later tales waver, and the work is considered unfinished. The circumstances of Potocki’s death (he believed he was becoming a werewolf and shot himself with a silver bullet he had had blessed by his village priest) attest to a deeper conflict within, and it’s probably not wise to set one’s compass toward reality based upon his assertion.

In his homeland, Potocki is considered something of a hero, and in the 1960s Polish director Wojciech Has made a film of the book starring Zbigniew Cybulski, “the Polish James Dean” (although he looks a bit more like a young Orson Welles to me). Titled The Saragossa Manuscript, the film captures much of the book’s charm. However, the weave of the interlocking narratives isn’t any easier to parse off the page, and the film benefits from multiple viewings.

Of course it might not be to everyone’s tastes. It’s three hours long, black and white, and ripe with weird imagery, weirder characters, and a storyline that exhibits a tendency to run off on a tangent, only to turn around, intersect with itself for an instant, and then keep going (tangentially) off in the opposite direction. Supposedly, Jerry Garcia called The Saragossa Manuscript his favorite film—it’s easy to see why.

The first half concerns itself with Alphonse (or Alphonso has he’s called in the film) and his adventures in the Sierra Morena. He spends the night at an isolated inn, the Venta Quemada, where he encounters his cousins the twin princesses, Emina and Zubelda. The second half switches to the castle of a cabbalist where Aphonso recuperates after his brush with the Inquisition. There he listens to the gypsy leader Avadoro recount tales of his adventuresome youth. As the cabbalist’s sister comments, “Each adventure starts out simply, but then one story creates another, and then another.” In the end, Avadoro’s story connects to Alphonso’s, and the soldier is left to wonder what was real and what was fantasy.

By sticking with the ambiguity of the source material, The Saragossa Manuscript approaches a state of wonder that defies easy categorization. It is simultaneously a costume drama, a fantasy, and a picaresque tale while swiping freely from romances, ghost stories, the Nights, and Bocaccio’s Decameron. It also features an exotic locale and plenty of swordfights interspersed throughout—the perfect compliment to The Golden Voyage of Sinbad on any double bill.

At least, in my Sunday afternoon home theater it is.

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