Steve's Reviews > The Manuscript Found in Saragossa

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potocki
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it was amazing

There's a fine film, The Saragossa Manuscripts, championed by Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, that captivated me when I saw it in 1968. But the film is a smidgeon of the book, a what awaits readers .

I concluded after two readings of this book that it is humanly impossible to grasp it on a single reading. Like many other great writers, Potocki wrote to be reread. His reader must be sufficiently entranced after a first reading want to find out what lies at its heart - indeed, to see if it even has a heart, or a main idea. The book is that quirky, that convoluted, that hard to take in as a whole. So it was in this exploratory spirit that I began my second reading. Today I can say this: when reread with care - my copy's every page is dotted with notes and links from one page to the next - and when reread with a view to getting Potocki's take on ALL of the societies his book depicts - I gained a rich understanding, nation by nation, of the entire Mediterranean world of the late 1600's. This includes the complex interactions of diverse strains of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. (Potocki, as a Polish diplomat, was intimately famkiliar with most all the countries depicted in his book. The man even visited Mongolia! And his disquistions, in the person of the eccentric "geometer" Velasquez, on philosophy ("Don Leibnitz"), science ("Don Newton") and religion in the 37th and 39th chapters, are wonders of lucid summary.)

As a student of the novel, I say that Saragossa, still largely ignored by novel scholars, belongs on the same shelf with greatest half dozen novels ever written. This includes Don Quixote, which immerses its reader into just one culture, that of Cervantes' early 17th century Christian Spain. On this score, Potocki makes Cervantes look parochial. And he does so on stylistic grounds as well. Where Readers today must accommodate their ears to the formal rhythms of Cervantes' pure Castillian language, Saragossa, by contrast, and notwithstanding the extent to which it too immerses readers - plunges them headlong - into the Castillian Spain of Potocki's time. In so doing, it offers readers, as I said above, a panoramic view of the entire Mediterranean world, with each of its distinct 66 stories unified by the themes of heroism, love and nobility.

These are Cervantic themes, and I think the case be made that their exposition in Saragossa is worthy of the creator of Don Quixote. Like Cervantes, Potocki maintains a serene detachment from any one culture or faith. And he does do, in part, by virtue of his dextrous and hugely innovative use of an ostensibly involuted novelistic form: that of the frame story: of stories within stories and (for Potocki) stories within stories within stories. So how, then, does Potocki manage to pull his readers along from one story to the next? The answer, I think, is that no story teller before or since has advanced his action in prose as graceful and steady as his. This straightforward, crystalline prose is as fresh to readers today as a piece in the New Yorker magazine. One can only marvel at its exquisite observational capacity, nothing short of cinematic. The man had a mind like a camera. (One of the quirks is that this book, in which Spanish culture is a primary concern, was written in French by a Pole. But fear not: Ian Maclean's tranlation in English, published by Penguin, has the lean, clean feel . . . of Spanish!).

BTW, a fine companion book to Saragossa is Karen Armstrong's Battle for God, about the rise of fundamentalist strains of Christianity, Judaism and Islam that began (she argues) in Castillian Spain in the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella. A great, essential and supremely timely book.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
January 1, 2005 – Finished Reading
January 8, 2009 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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message 1: by Wayne (last edited Feb 10, 2009 07:07PM) (new) - added it

Wayne Steve,
your review may be short but it should win converts to this tome. I'm one!!
Karen Armstrong is a very interesting writer too.
Just WHEN am I going to get the time to read ALL these books??!!!??
Seeing connections with George's War on Terror just goes to show how we never truly advance, always a chance of slipping back into the Dark.
Charles Darwin's bicentenary has brought some archconservatives out of the woodwork too. Vigilance ..the battle for a superstitious free world is never won...no resting on one's laurels, that's for sure.
Cheers from Wayne,Sydney Australia.


Steve Thanks, Wayne. Let me know how Saragossa goes with you. It's weird and wondrous at the beginning, smooth and sinewy in the middle with its 60 or so stories, all told in the most gorgeous lucid prose, and astonishingly perfect in its conclusion, which wraps up all loose threads in a way that squares with every dictum of good common sense yet ascribes true merit and wisdom to the most surprising of candidates.

Like Armstrong, Potocki critiques not only the fading heroic ethic but also the Enlightenment modernism of his time (ca. 1700). This includes the modern secularized, centralized and nominally Christian governments (the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella) that were rapidly replacing centralized feudalisms sustained by codes of honor.

Good luck putting out those fires. Huge story in our media up over. Nice to hear from someone down under.

About vigilance: I hope our use of Information will displace the Idiots we've been electing. So far, however, Obama is listening to Idiots (Summers, Bernanke, Rubin, all the damned bankers.)

Steve


message 3: by Wayne (new) - added it

Wayne Hi Steve,
You certainly rewhetted my appetite with your description of Potocki's book. I am just surprised I haven't heard of it before.But I'm glad I haven't.
Nice to know there are still undiscovered treasures out there!!!Sounds extremely rich and complex...a real feast.

We here are getting more and more disillusioned with our new Prime Minister. Simply no leadership.Like you, we have just had 10 years or so of destructive government which used Sept 11 to crack down on civil liberties, create mistrust of foreigners and also discouraged any action on climate change despite drought and the destruction of our river system.
In many ways the hope for a New Regime is fading fast here.The terrifying fires we have just experienced have been unique in their ferocity. I was fighting to help my sister save her home from fire here in Sydney a few years ago, but it was nothing compared to the latest.
Sad to hear Obama is not listening to the right people. Big Business are somehow Untouchables.Here as well.The shortsightedness is amazing.
I always wondered what the End of the World would be like.I foresaw panic and/or cooperation. But it seems to be neither.It is DENIAL.Which figures...most men will never admit to being sick, will not go to see a doctor and leave it until it is too late.
Perhaps someone is out there writing a book of multiple stories to express the tenor of the Times, another Potocki!!!!
Exactly what is your surname ,Steve???

Happy reading and don't let the bastards get you down, as we say downunder...Wayne.



message 4: by Jamie (new)

Jamie I am a big fan of this book (from the 1970's when only the first 10 days was available in English) but I agree that you can't really understand it all on first reading. Wait a few years and read it again to really get the full flavor of it.


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