MICHAEL ATKINSON

TO SARAGOSSA AND PART WAY BACK: A POLISH GHOST STORY

BEFORE THE CRYING OF LOT 49 AND THE ILLUMINATUS TRILOGY, THERE WAS A SPIRALLING EIGHTEENTH CENTURY POLISH-FRENCH LITERARY MYSTERY CALLED THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT.

DISCUSSED: The Napoleonic Wars, Hexamerons, Samech and Vav, Rosicrucian Motifs, Blarney, Gödel, Escher, Borges When Drinking, Mesmer, Book Four of Herodotus, Semi-Psycho-Autobiography, Sewers, Matroishka, Pagan Zest

There is a book I love by an eighteenth-century Pole called The Saragossa Manuscript. Or, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. Or, not quite a book but an onion-layered opus Alexandrinum of self-published fantasies, notebooks, drafts, addenda, co-opted fables, separately issued tales, story frames without end, rhetorical inquiry, Voltairean farce, circular reasoning, rampaging incompleteness. I love it like the memory of an adored girl, like a koan, because I cannot grasp it. Though it is set in Spain, it was written in French, by a Pole, M. le Comte Jan Potocki. (Say Poe-tos-ki.) It has survived, as it was initially disseminated, only in fragments, many in questionable translation and retranslation, and the distinct possibility remains that there is still more of it, somewhere, undiscovered, unread. The possibility remains that there will never be, in fact, an end to it—which is as it should be, since the abyssal farce of eternal narrativity is more or less its bread and butter. It was made into a fascinating if necessarily selective Polish film in 1964, itself the chronic victim of cuts, re-edits, losses, mis-releases, sequesterings, restorations, and mysterious vacuums. It, too, may not be available to us in its conclusive form, although there remains some question about what exactly that would be. The most recent re-release clocks in at 182 minutes, but more of that tentacling monster may be awaiting excavation somewhere in the world’s vaults. There may be, in fact, no end to it.

What happens: A French soldier, narrating during the Napoleonic conquests, discovers “several handwritten notebooks” in a house after the 1809 fall of Saragossa; later, as he is captured himself by the Spanish forces, he and his captor read and translate the work, being the memoirs of one Alphonse van Worden, a Walloon officer waylaid in the Sierra Morena ranges in 1739 on his way to Madrid. We read as they read van Worden’s story, which itself recounts tales told to him by innumerable, unreliable, and often reoccurring strangers about stories they’ve experienced or heard, which may be baloney but in turn contain stories told by others that might be true, and so on. The text is a nightmare of indistinctly signifying pronouns—virtually every “I” is a mad summons to retrace your way back through tale-told jungles you were lucky to emerge from once. At one point, we’re six degrees deep in a fabulistic bog: Potocki’s narrational surrogate—the French soldier—is transcribing the story of van Worden lost in his Gothic-Iberian wonderland as he (van Worden) recounts having met a gypsy chief named Avadoro, who tells him his life’s story (a tale that otherwise trails on for fifty days and is interrupted for other stories thirty-five times, give or take a yarn depending on what you qualify as an interruption), amid which he (Avadoro) is given cause to listen to one Lope Soarez, a young invalid, as he informs him (Avadoro) of the events leading up to and including his (Soarez’s) disablement, a section of which story involves a grifter named Don Roque Brusqueros, who, while trying to scam Soarez in one manner or another, tells him (Soarez) about the saga of his life, including an episode in which he (Don Roque) had attempted to burglarize a Salamanca apartment and scared a man out of his connubial bed; the next day, he (Don Roque) met with the kink-sympathetic wife, who recounts her own story of maturation, marriage, vengeful gaslighting, and vice…

This book, this manuscript of an MS. of a “manuscript,” tells stories—that is, it does nothing but tell stories. Relentlessly. Page space is not wasted on inner monologues, introspective digressions, context, description, psychology. In outline, it is a hexameron, a narrative of “embedded” narratives that occupy sixty-six days of diegetic time, although several hunks of it were originally published as “decamerons,” that is, equal tenths of a larger decameron that would never come to exist, as far as we know. There may have been more, many more, days in Potocki’s plan—even, perhaps, an infinite number—although structuralistically limiting the action to sixty-six days hardly limits the text itself from birthing stories within stories within stories within stories, Zeno-like. In Hebrew, sixty-six translates numerically to samech, a circle, and vav, a line. In kabbalah—a facet of 1700s Polish life Potocki references explicitly, along with the tarot deck, Gnostic myth and Rosicrucian motifs—after the initial tzimtzum (the withdrawal of G-d’s light to allow for the creation of independent realities), what remained was the samech and the vav, a great circle and then a line, a ray of light, projected into the emptiness, with the circle around it. Then another circle emanated from the line, and another, and so forth, each concentric circle “enlightening” the hollow darkness…

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Michael Atkinson writes about film for The Village Voice. He is the author of Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema (Limelight Editions, 2000).

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