Last November I took part in the Classics Club’s 25th Classics Spin and the book selected for me to read before the deadline, which is this Saturday, was The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. Written in French and first published in 1804 and then again in a longer version in 1810, this very unusual novel is the work of the Polish author Count Jan Potocki who, it seems, led a very unusual life: born into an aristocratic family he spent some time with the Knights of Malta, he was apparently the first Polish person to fly in a hot air balloon, and he is said to have shot himself with a silver bullet after becoming convinced that he was a werewolf! I read a Penguin Classics edition of the book translated into English by Ian Maclean. I’m not sure how many other English translations exist, but I highly recommend this one; it’s very readable and makes the novel accessible to the modern reader without losing the feel of the period in which it is set.
I’m going to find it very difficult to give a summary of the plot, but I will do my best! It begins in 1739 with Alphonse van Worden, a young Walloon officer in the Spanish army, on his way to join his regiment in Madrid. Taking shelter in a seemingly abandoned inn in the mountains of the Sierra Morena, two beautiful women appear who introduce themselves as his cousins from Tunis, Emina and Zubeida. After listening to their story, Alphonse goes to bed for the night, only to wake up outside under a gallows, beside the bodies of two hanged men.
This is the first of many bizarre situations in which Alphonse finds himself over the next sixty-six days as he encounters a succession of strange and intriguing characters, including a gypsy chief, a cabbalist, a hermit and even the legendary Wandering Jew. Each of them has a story to tell – and often, another character within their story has another story of his or her own to tell too. Sometimes the stories-within-stories become several layers deep, to the point where one of the characters, the mathematician Velásquez, remarks:
“I do not know who is speaking and who is listening. Sometimes the Marques de Val Florida is telling the story of his life to his daughter, sometimes it is she who is relating it to the gypsy 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.”
This probably sounds very confusing, but the novel is actually not as difficult to read as you might think. Although, like Velásquez, I often forgot who was speaking and who was listening, I found that in most cases it didn’t really matter all that much. I stopped trying to keep everything straight in my mind and just enjoyed each story for its own sake – and there’s a lot to enjoy! There are tales of hauntings and evil spirits, duels and disguises, magic and hidden treasures and, apart from one or two – the Wandering Jew’s story became a bit tedious, I thought – they are all very entertaining. Some are romantic, some are gothic and ghostly and others are funny; I was reminded at various times of Don Quixote and The Thousand and One Nights. The novel is conveniently divided into sixty-six chapters, one for each day of Alphonse’s journey (although some of the stories are split across several days), so if you wanted to you could probably read one chapter per day, although I was so gripped by it that I finished the book much more quickly than that!
Despite the sometimes random and meandering feel of the book, it does all come together at the end and most of the loose ends are tied up quite neatly. However, I thought this was one of the few weak points of the book – the conclusion of Alphonse’s story seemed too convenient and too abrupt and I think I would have preferred a different kind of ending. Still, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa was a lot of fun to read and just the sort of escapism I needed at the moment!
This is book 19/50 read from my second Classics Club list.