Book Reviews by Heidi Boudro

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa

Reviewed by Heidi Boudro

The Polish count Jan Potocki (1761-1815) was an army officer, adventurer, linguist, and author of travel and ethnographic accounts. He also wrote a highly imaginative gothic-horror-picaresque-rationalist novel, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, recommended to me by Amazon; and I ordered it, based on the rave reviews and the prospect of reading something truly weird.

Only extracts were published in the author's lifetime. The novel seems to have later become well-known in Poland (in translation from French), where a film, The Saragossa Manuscript, was made in 1965, and in France, where there has been a recent critical edition based on (of course) manuscripts. The Penguin translation by Ian Maclean (1995), the one I read, seems to be the only complete translation in English, although not the first translation. I had some trouble establishing these basic facts, despite a pretty good introduction by Maclean in the Penguin edition, which for me actually adds to the mystery of the novel.

The novel itself has its requisite frame: of a manuscript found during Napoleon's invasion of Spain, fifty years after its composition. In the manuscript, a young Waloon officer on a journey to report to the Spanish army records his experiences, some semi-hallucinatory, and the stories told by travelers and others met in the inns, hermitages, gypsy camps, and caverns of southern Spain over the course of 66 days.

Without giving anything away, the stories include (but are not limited to) horror, the occult, satire, and, in the gypsy chief's story, a rather lengthy chunk of a romantic-picaresque Spanish novel involving star-crossed lovers. The stories start and stop, nest within each other (as noted and derided by one of the more literal-minded characters), and interlock.

The Penguin edition indexes 36 separate characters who have stories of significant length. These characters are so distinct and unique that I had no trouble distinguishing and remembering them. In addition, they tell their stories in radically different literary styles, with commensurate different content.

There was, however, a complexity of the true relationships between characters and events, a complexity that will take re-readings to appreciate.

But why does the novel seem so contemporary? Could it be due to the prose style of the translation? Is it the literary eclecticism, the eroticism, the multiculturalism, a certain modern detachment from its subjects? Was the Count that far ahead of his time, as a "modernist" or "postmodernist," or simply a very sophisticated author? Or am I reading something else into this bizarre tale?

Copyright © 2009 by Heidi Boudro