Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Manuscript Found at Saragossa

As a student in the early 80's, I saw a film at the local art house that was quite unlike anything I'd seen before. It was foreign, black and white, and featured (in addition to scantily clad temptresses) seemingly innumerable stories within stories, a narrative Chinese box, all in a quite fantastic vein. The name of the film escaped me for years, but it remained as a tantalizing memory. No one I spoke to seems to have any recollection of the film, and I wondered if it had been a dream after all.

A few years ago there was a new translation of a book entitled The Manuscript Found at Saragossa by Polish author Jan Potocki. This novel is comprised of interlocking stories within stories, gothic and surreal. Set in Spain's Sierra Morena mountains in the early years of the 18th century, the intricate stories make generous use of the elements of hermetic and kabbalistic teachings, as well as Islamic history and the horrors of the Inquisition.

Potocki knew the detailed history of the time and sprinkled his narrative with actual persons and events. He created in this novel a subterranean twilight world, where secretive Moorish sheiks hoard incredible wealth and scheme for the continuance of their hereditary authority in the hidden realm.

Van Worden, the narrator, is manipulated throughout to serve the purposes of a distant relation, the Sheik of the Gomelez. He accomplishes this through tests of character, through the intricate web of stories (including the tale of the Wandering Jew, a popular gothic motif - see also Melmoth the Wanderer and Eugene Sue's eponymous novel), and through, not least, the erotic attractions of two nubile Moorish princesses. A recurring episode pertains to some criminal corpses, hanging near a crossroads, that seem to be resurrected with an almost comic consistency.

The disparate narratives weave together in the final pages. Van Worden learns the object of his manipulation, but is greatly rewarded for providing an heir to the Sheik. The object of the Sheik is a plan for Moorish world domination, a foreshadowing of the anti-semitic and discredited "Protocols of the Elders of Zion". Conspiracy theorists, alas, have always been with us.

And of course, while reading this novel, back in 2001, my mind was struck by similarities to a film I had seen many years before. The film? The 1965 production of "The Saragossa Manuscript", which I now own on DVD. Both the book and the film are wonderfully imagined works of art.

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