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Jan Potocki


A collection of weird tales

Revised 18-09-2020.
Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2001).

The Sierra Morena in Andalusia was thought to be a region of terror for incautious travellers, haunted by ghosts and ghouls and nameless horrors. This is the setting for the narrative of The Saragossa Manuscript, which is supposed to be written by a young Spanish officer, a French-educated captain in the Walloon Guards, who travelled there at the end of the eighteenth century. Ignoring advice to the contrary, he sets off across country accompanied by two servants who soon make off, leaving him alone in a deserted and semi-ruined inn or venta. He falls asleep supperless and then experiences the first of the series of bizarre dreams, visions, or out-of-the-body experiences which recur throughout the book. These involve two beautiful Moorish sisters who claim to be his cousins, but may also be succubae or the reanimated corpses of two bandits hanged on the gallows which the young man had passed earlier in his journey. Other characters include a madman, a cabalist, assorted bandits and gypsies, and a prosy and rather tiresome hermit.

The format of the book is similar to that of the Decameron, being composed of a sequence of numbered days each of which contains tales-within-tales related by the characters. Some of these, such as the legend of the lamia, date from antiquity, but others seem to have been invented by Potocki, and one was later used without acknowledgement by Washington Irving. The narrator's adventures are in the Gothic horror mode but with considerable erotic overtones. He repeatedly finds himself in bed with the two sisters, who initially wear chastity belts which are later discarded; there is also a hint of a prior incestuous lesbian relationship between the sisters. The details of these encounters are, however, largely left to the imagination of the reader. It is, I think, this allusiveness that makes the book so effective. In spite of its age, this is a book that would appeal to anyone who enjoys fantasy literature. A modern author would no doubt have written much more explicitly about the sex episodes, but this would have destroyed the aura of mystery that characterizes the work.

[Note added 18-09-2020: It has occurred to me that the Manuscript can be seen as an early anticipation of a currently fashionable genre, magical realism, which Wikipedia defines as "a style of fiction and literary genre that paints a realistic view of the modern world while also adding magical elements".]_

In fact, Potocki went on to spoil his book himself. The portion translated here is merely the first part of a much longer novel, which as far as I know has not been translated from the original French. In these following sections the narrator goes on to have more adventures which are decidedly this-worldly, and finally he receives a mundane explanation for the early mysteries. This, of course, merely serves to destroy most of their original impact on the reader. It is as well, I think, to leave this material untranslated, even though it means that the Manuscript ends in the air, without a definite conclusion.

Potocki was a Polish nobleman, born in 1761, who was educated first in Poland and then in Switzerland. He travelled widely and was well known as an archaeologist and ethnologist. He wrote a good deal of non-fiction though he was best known in his own day for making a balloon ascent with M. Blanchard. He later became depressed and committed suicide in 1815.

%T The Saragossa Manuscript
%S A collection of weird tales
%A Potocki, Jan
%I Cassell
%C London
%D 1960
%P xxii + 242 pp
%K fiction
%O edited and with a preface by Roger Callois
%O translated by Elizabeth Abbott

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