Jan Potocki: The Manuscript Found In Saragossa

June 15, 2022

     I dug this out to re-read at least a couple of years back, and finally got around to it: why did I take so long? I’d forgotten pretty much everything about it apart from the fact that I’d really enjoyed it first time around. Now I can’t wait to watch the film, which is apparently a 1960s cult classic.

You won’t get much of a summary of the plot, because there isn’t really one, and because it would be impossible. It centres on the bizarre adventures of an officer in the Wallonian army while travelling through Spain in the eighteenth century, but he’s really only the vehicle for an astonishing series of interlinked fantastical tales narrated by a group of different characters, ranging from a gypsy chief, various Spanish nobles, the Wandering Jew and many more. It’s a picaresque ramble rather than a novel, very reminiscent of the nested tales which are the famous Thousand Nights and One Night; it’s fluent, easy reading which rapidly draws you in, and you’re hooked, with no real idea where you will be heading…

The history of Europe in the late 17th and early 18th centuries is woven into the backcloth, but where truth ends and fantasy begins, I have no idea.

Potocki – and if you read any biographical account of his life, you’ll quickly discover what a curious character he was – creates a very wide range of interesting characters who all have tales of varying degrees of complexity to share; the tales are broken off regularly, in the same fairly simple fashion, every evening, and someone’s tale will be resumed, or a new one will start, the following day. Thus there is some suspense of a sort, if you can retain all the different tales and characters in your head.

I found myself wondering what Potocki was trying to achieve, since when he wrote (early 19th century) the novel was rather more developed in terms of plot, style and characterisation in quite a few countries. He certainly comes across as a freethinker in terms of both morals and religion, via the activities and attitudes of his characters. There is also a certain amount of self-reference in terms of the nature of narrative, its complexity and how stories should be told; he engages with his readers, somewhat in the manner of Fielding.

Potocki’s great learning is clearly in evidence, as are his wide travels, and various Faustian aspects are woven into some of the tales: we never know whether the devils are real or not, and our hero never reveals the secret to which he is sworn in the earliest chapters. It works its way to a fair whirlwind of an ending; the whole thing is quite a stunning tour-de-force, and I’m intrigued now to see how on earth anyone managed to turn it into a film. I may report back…

One Response to “Jan Potocki: The Manuscript Found In Saragossa”


  1. […] re-read: Jan Potocki Manuscript Found in Saragossa: an astonishing novel, a tour de force from the early 19th century; it was good finally to find […]

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