The Manuscript Found in Saragossa: Uncovering Polish Gothic

Posted by Marek Lewandowski on February 24, 2012 in Blog, Guest Blog, Marek Lewandowski tagged with , , ,

It is perhaps something of a pity that my continuing interest in the Gothic has, up to this moment, not yet led me to explore the genre’s heritage in my own country. I asked myself the question as to why this may be and at first concluded that a text written by a Polish author, which could be righteously classified within the Gothic genre, may simply not exist. After discovering that this is, only to a certain extent, true, the reasons for which I shall consider in more detail later, I was lucky enough to stumble upon a title in my collection which I had attempted to read as a teenager, but had struggled with and quickly abandoned, mainly due to the difficulty of making it through the dense and enigmatic plot. Recently, I decided to try and confront Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa again, and this time, perhaps thanks to an interest in ‘all things Gothic’, which has had the chance to grow and develop in recent years, found it to be an immensely captivating text. During my second reading I enjoyed the effort of encountering its internal complexity and the way the text incorporates features from a variety of genres and subjects – not only those which I see as pertaining directly to the Gothic. While reading through this title, I was searching for two things: content which classifies the novel as a Gothic one, and the significance of a work in this category, if indeed Gothic it is, not only in contributing to the Polish literary tradition, but also its relevance to the more widely recognized sphere of the ‘European’ Gothic novel. The enigmatic content one finds in the book only slightly exceeds the mystery surrounding the biography of the author, and because of this, it is worth taking a brief look at some aspects of the author’s life, before going on to describe his work in more detail. My goal here is to briefly introduce a subject that can provide, for those who may find ‘Polish Gothic’ a topic of interest, a footing from which it would be possible to pursue further reading.

The Author

Jan Potocki (1761–1815)

Count Jan Potocki (pronounced [ˈjan pɔˈtɔt͡skʲi] was born into a noble family, and spent almost his entire life living up to his title. Educated at Geneva and Lausanne, he obtained a firm understanding of classical knowledge, and went on to successfully embrace his status by actively participating in the cultural scene of pre-revolutionary Europe, mingling with such figures as Franz Mesmer, Alessandro Cagliostro, or the aeronaut Jean-Pierre Blanchard. Most often described as a polymath, traveller, freemason, and avid occultist, by the age of 28, his passion for scientific research, funded by his immense wealth, led him into some of the farthest corners of the world, to places like Egypt or Mongolia, where he collected the experiences that fuelled his already vivid imagination. The accounts of the many travels he embarked upon, as well as his political treatises, were known to invoke a great deal of wonder and admiration in his readers. Potocki fought as a soldier in many European armies, witnessed the French revolution, accompanied the Russian diplomatic mission to China, and even served on board a ship with the Knights of Malta. It could safely be said that he was a man whose interests were similar to the modern day war journalist’s, who wanders into the most dangerous corners of the world in order to experience and report on local occurrences. As it can be imagined, the life experience of such a figure must bear many mysteries. To give just one example, the most famous legend surrounding Potocki’s life has it that he ended his own after an extended period of depression, and not long after completing his masterpiece The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Potocki removed a small, strawberry-shaped silver bit from a sugar bowl, began filing it down, bit by bit each morning, into the shape of a bullet, and after obtaining the desired shape and having his ‘bullet’ blessed by the estate priest, he loaded it into his pistol, and shot himself in the head. Because of the rather bizarre circumstances surrounding his death, the author earned himself the morbidly amusing title of  ‘the man who shot himself with a strawberry”.

The Manuscript

If these few details from the author’s biography seem colourful enough, the stories told in his greatest creation surely surpass them in their ability to induce a reader’s interest. It is very likely that the author’s travels to the orient were the inspiration for his masterpiece, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa – an arabesque frame narrative that is defined by its vivid descriptions, paradoxical juxtapositions, and vast collection of character types, all contained within an elaborately structured 66-day plot. The many tales that constitute it form a mélange of adventure, legend, and myth; a world filled with kabbalists, thieves, magicians, succubae, gypsies, The Wandering Jew, shape-shifters, the un-dead, beautiful women – all immersed in an atmosphere teeming with conspiracy.

Illustrated cover for the 1950 edition

The preface to the novel tells of a French officer, who, while out looting houses after the fall of Saragossa to the French and Polish armies in 1809, finds a buried manuscript (a standard Gothic motif) telling ‘stories of Kabbalists, bandits, and ghosts’. The manuscript tells a story which took place forty years earlier – the adventures of Alphonse Van Warden, a young and naïve captain of the Spanish Walloon Guard, who, after losing his unit in the Sierra Madre Mountains in mysterious circumstances, recounts the experience of 66 days of lone wanderings though a foreign landscape filled with inns, caves, underground passages, and the occasional hermitage. The story begins with a Spanish proverb ‘las gitanas de Sierra Morena quieren carne de hombres’, which can be translated either as ‘Sierra Morena Gypsies desire the bodies of men’, or alternatively ‘Sierra Morena Gypsies desire human meat’. The narrator himself sticks to the latter version, and by starting off the story with a suggestion of cannibalism, indicates the nature of the content that the reader should expect to encounter.

The protagonist vividly describes the many people he encounters along the way, while telling the stories that they relate to him, and the resulting complex intermingling between characters is what forms the basis for the works frame-narrative structure. The nested and interlocking design can be metaphorically compared to a Chinese-box or labyrinth, with multiple stories contained within ‘the labyrinth’ unraveling gradually, while retaining much of their cryptic nature. The plot gives the impression of being externally bounded, closed, and discrete; but at the same time internally inexplicable and baffling. This forms a Gothic space which is the most distinguishing feature of the novel, and which makes it not dissimilar in it intricate architecture to works such as Melmoth the Wanderer, or The Canterbury Tales or Boccaccio’s Decameron. An often cited illustration of the frustration that a multilayered narrative such as this has the ability to induce, is the fifty-third day of the main plot, which tells the story of a member of the Knights of Malta, told to a Cursed Pilgrim, who himself conveys the story to a man named Cornadez, who in turn relates it to Busquer, who then tells it to Toledo, with the entire multi-levelled narrative encased in the words of a the Gypsy Chief who appears throughout. The result is an obscure and fragmented work which paradoxically gives the impression of forming an integral whole. The meandering plot presents a diverse collection of genres and subjects that were popular throughout Europe at the time of novel’s composition, all of which are immersed in a supernatural atmosphere, where reality comes to an intersection with a world filled with nightmares – where ghosts and spectres stand face-to-face with ‘real’ characters, creating an ever-present ambience which is unmistakeably Gothic. The Manuscript is a collection of tales which corresponds greatly in its oriental-themed content to William Beckford’s Vathek. One notable parallel between Potocki’s and Beckford’s novels is the inclusion of a tower with 1,500 steps, which in Beckford’s novel points toward the heavens, but in Potocki’s version leads eerily down into the underworld. In Vathek the tower represents powerful Caliph’s realisation of his morbid fantasies and dark appetites, while Potocki utilizes the idea of the underground tower to express ideas which delve deep into age old secret organizations in an attempt to uncover the mysteries of magic.

An illustration showing some of the Kabbalistic imagery present throughout the novel

The Manuscript offers a diverse selection of exotic and erotic content; from typical themes of mystery and suspense, through vivid scenes of incestuous sex, such as the encounter with two Mauritanian sisters (simultaneously). The two princesses personify the forces of Satan, which is depicted in their attempt to force the hero to abandon his Christian faith, convert to Islam, and then make them his wives. After being coerced into drinking a magical potion and spending an intoxicating night with the sisters, Van Warden wakes to find himself lying not in bed with two beautiful women, but under the gallows in the cold embrace of two corpses instead. The sex scene with the two women is particularly worth mention, especially given that the subversive nature of the erotic revelry is enhanced by the fact that the two sisters differ in their faith and skin colour to the hero’s own.  Though relationships between family members were somewhat more common at the time, a description of a Christian engaging in interracial sexual activity with heathens was a greatly controversial move on the part of the author – a move which did not fail in attracting the attention of large amounts of readers. If the perversion would end on just one instance of sexual activity of this nature, it would perhaps not be worth commenting. However, one can enumerate exactly twenty-two separate instances of family members engaging in various types of lovemaking, with various depictions of cousin-cousin, sister-sister, mother-stepson, aunt-nephew, and brother-sister combinations. The incorporation of such features into the story induced strong emotions in readers, and resulted in many conflicts with contemporary censorship. If one is interested in examining the theme of incest, The Manuscript is surely a position worth taking a look at.

Many of the episodes in the story, such as the one just mentioned, are fascinating to read, while others exhibit a more tedious nature which make them tiring to the eye, and this is why the novel is best taken in small doses. Even by progressing through the text slowly, it is easy to become lost in the midst of the meandering plot structure of this work. Nonetheless, the same aspect renders the story greatly rewarding, and offers a mix of kaleidoscopic components which are both colourful in their seeming obsession with orientalism, and deeply arcane in their portrayal of magic, kabbalah, erotica, and subversion. Saragossa is a real place, but thanks to the fantastic tropes applied in the novel, it becomes possible to identify it as a land of unusual occurrences and mystery. Just as the biblical Arcadia can be seen as a land of peace, prosperity, and happiness, the Saragossa in the novel becomes the opposite – a symbol of mystery, perplexity, gloom, and obscurity. For me, The Manuscript is mostly concerned with confronting the demons of irrationalism. Van Worden’s adventures are in fact a story of the triumph of reason and sober logic. It is a work that is essentially founded in the tradition of Gothic Expliqué, where ghostly apparitions are in fact illusions (at least most of them) or cleverly staged acts prepared by human beings.

The Disasters of War : Goya's 'dark' prints and paintings are often used as illustrations in various editions of the novel

Polish Gothic?

As indicated earlier, it is a bit of paradox that one of the best Polish novels which pertains to Gothic conventions, simply does not seem have much in common with the homeland of the author – a patriot, who possessed an immense cultural awareness, but for whom even the use his own mother tongue posed many problems. It was written in French, outside the borders of the author’s country (which did not actually exist as a political entity at the time), the plot takes place in Spain, and the reader will find it hard to spot even one Polish national amid the vast multitude of characters present throughout. It seems that it would be best to describe it, not so much as ‘Polish’ but  ‘European’.

In my belief, however, the text holds a certain significance with regards to idea of Polish national identity. The author’s venture to fulfil his numerous multicultural enterprises, and the complexity and obscurity of his creation symbolically express a certain national anxiety which one may find hard not to encounter in Polish work of the period, or even Polish literature in general. Potocki’s work is concerned with Poland through a subtle expression of the disillusionment with patriotism felt by Polish nationals on the eve of the French revolution. Its incorporation of deep symbolism embodies the conflictive interplay between the loyalty felt towards one’s country and the reality of being dominated by a foreign power. The initial impression that the novel lacks content invoking evident national association is just one piece of evidence that not only shows to prove how difficult it was for the Gothic novel to find its place in Polish literature, but also illustrates the difficulty many individuals encountered when trying to identify with a nation undergoing a great deal of political and cultural turmoil. At the time when the Gothic jewels The Mysteries of Udolpho or The Monk are being written, in Polish literature, only The Manuscript is noticed by the European reader. The situation presents itself in such light because it took place during the Polish enlightenment, when national literature preferred topics other than those applied in Western European literature, engaging itself primarily in contemporary political issues. There was not much room for the Gothic novel among the great patriotic engagement of the time. The obsession with patriotism was only strengthened by the coming of the first, second, and third partition of Poland (1772–1795), which resulted in the end of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, and ultimately removed Poland from European maps for a period of 123 years. Another reason for which this kind of writing may not have succeeded in becoming popular was the prevailing rationalistic mindset of the period, which prided itself in negating all that was otherworldly and supernatural, and had trouble accepting the pre-romantic unease brought about by the arrival of the “European” Gothic romance.

Most Polish authors chose to comply with the pervading political and philosophical climate, and this is why The Manuscript is one of the very few Polish texts which incorporates the Gothic, a mode of writing that remains to this day greatly underappreciated in Polish literary awareness. It is quite a curiosity, that even today, Potocki’s novel is recognized and appreciated more widely in British and American culture than in Polish awareness. In Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, one can read a fragment where two characters have an amusing argument concerning the award-winning 1965 film adaptation of Potocki’s work, by Polish director Wojciech Has (with a runtime of over three hours), and whether is in fact a Polish or Spanish production.

A scene from 'The Saragossa Manuscript' by director Wojciech Has

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa has remained on the fringe of the mainstream literary canon, and almost completely outside the awareness of the Polish reader. It illustrates the nature of Polish Gothic quite well because it has always been, and still remains to a large extent unnoticed. The novel is a superb piece of literature that has unfortunately been treated with much disregard ever since its appearance, and as a result, the entire body of literature which could be defined as ‘Polish Gothic’, continues to be greatly undervalued to this day. One can find other works of the period which could be classified as Gothic – works such as Anna Olimpia Mostowska’s Ghost in the Little Castle (1806) or Zygmunt Krasiński’s Tomb of the Reichstal Family (1828), but these form a rather small assortment and are notoriously hard to find, especially in translated editions. The few available titles continue to be read primarily by scholars and the few enthusiasts of the genre who have somehow become aware of their existence. It seems that the brief Polish interest in writing Gothic stories ended with the coming of the twentieth century, when two World Wars and the subsequent state of socialist turmoil provided unfavourable conditions for writers to create such forms of fantastic literature. It is almost as if the ebb and flow of history has somehow managed to take away the Gothic from Polish literature, therefore establishing it as an obscure genre that continues to be hardly noticed up to this day.

It has only been in the past couple of decades that modern horror fiction writing has begun to show a noticeable growth in popularity. The popular reader’s growing appetite for horror has fostered the creativity of many young Polish writers who wish to cater to their needs. Because of the obvious gap that exists between the ‘Polish Gothic’ works of the nineteenth century and contemporary new-horror culture, the novels that emerge today certainly have a great deal of originality to offer. A survey of some of these ‘new’ titles would perhaps be a good topic for another article, but for those individuals who may be interested in exploring any form of the Polish Gothic tradition, I would first recommend reaching for Jan Potocki’s novel, which begins in a world far away from the author’s homeland, but also magically manages to lead the reader inevitably towards it.

For those who may find reading this novel a bit too hard on the mind, but who enjoy a good piece of foreign cinema, and are not discouraged by the idea of spending three hours in front of a screen, it is  worth taking a look at the wonderfully executed film adaptation, The Saragossa Manuscript (1965), a link to which I have provided below.

>>>>The Full Film<<<


Kostkiewiczowa, Teresa and Zbigniew Golinski, Pisarze Polskiego Oswiecenia, Wyd. 1. Warszawa : Wydawn. Naukowe PWN, 1992-

Milosz, Czeslaw, The History of Polish Literature, 2nd ed (Berkeley London: University of California Press, 1983), pp. xix,583p,[16]p of plates

Potocki, Jan and Ian Maclean, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, 1st (London: Viking, 1995), pp. xxiii, 630 p.

Tomkowski, Jan, Literatura Polska (Warszawa: Panstwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1993)

Tiny URL for this post: