Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Saragossa Manuscript

Last Friday, Amazon delivered me the 1965 Polish film The Saragossa Manuscript directed by Wojciech Has. The film comes well-recommended, having been praised by the likes of David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, and Neil Gaiman. Jerry Garcia supposedly helped supply funds to get a full cut of the film restored. Having not finished the film yet I can't give my own full review, but so far I've been impressed by some of the imagery, and the unusual use of music--sometimes its usual (if quirky) sixties film score, but it has touches of primitive electronica experimentalism reminscient of some sci-fi scores of the era.

I went looking for the film because of its source material, the novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Count Jan Potocki (1761-1815). The book bears some resemblance to works like the Arabian Nights or the Decameron. It's a fantasy (at least in part) describing the experiences and stories related to a young Walloon officer in the Sierra Morenas of Spain in 1739. It includes gypsies, cabbalists, Sapphic sister Moorish princesses, and hints at secret history. The stories are nested like Matryoshka dolls, with narrators of some stories showing up as characters in others. Neil Gaiman, a fan of the work, has called it "a labyrinth inside of a maze." It combines elements of the gothic and picaresque with eroticism and humor.

The book itself has an interesting history. It's so convoluted in fact that Potocki's authorship was at times doubted. The novel was written in French, and over an extended period in several stages. The first few "days" were published in 1805 in French. Later, the entire manuscript was translated and published in Polish, but then the original complete manuscript was lost, and had to be "back translated" into French for a complete French version. Wikipedia suggests that scholars now think their were two versions: an unfinished one from 1804, published in 1885, and a rewritten, tonal different complete 1810 version. Only the first of these versions has appeared in English.

Potocki himself is an interesting and character. He was served as a military officer, and was also for a time of novice of the Knights of Malta. He travelled and wrote scholarly studies on linguistics and ethnography. In 1790, he was among the first to fly in a hot air balloon. He also committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. Allegedly, this was done with a silver bullet he fashioned himself and had had blessed by a chaplain!

Anyway the novel is well worth your time. I'll keep you posted on the film, but I'm anticipating good things.


Aaron E. Steele said...

That's just the sort of stuff I love. Secret histories, bizarre texts, people who go to the grave with unrevealed secrets. I'll have to go hunting the interwebs for more juice!

Trey said...

Good hunting. I think you'll find it well worth your time.

netherwerks said...

OMG--I never heard of this before. Thank you for pointing it out. This will be a lot of fun to explore a bit farther. There is a lot of very intriguing occult/weird stuff all over Eastern Europe and Poland is a lot like a clearing-house for a lot of it. What a character this guy must have been!

Trey said...

Glad to be of service. ;) Yeah, I imagine Count Potocki was indeed an interesting dude.

Unknown said...

I mentioned this to my Polish-American wife and she had heard of Wojciech Has, but never The Saragossa Manuscript. And she had never heard of the original text either. I'm totally going to have to hunt this one down. Thanks for the link!

Trey said...

Glad to help bring obscure 19th Century works to an audience. ;)