In the light of this month’s celebration of Poland’s Constitution of the 3rd of May 1791, it seems appropriate to cast the spotlight on one of the country’s greatest visionaries and reformers, and all-around enlightened figure, Count Jan Nepomucen Potocki. Born in 1761 into the aristocratic Potocki family, Count Jan was a tireless political campaigner, and in 1788 he established a publishing house called the Free Press in Warsaw, which he used to produce innumerable political pamphlets expounding ideas such as the freedom of peasants and denunciations of Russia and Prussia.
Known as an eccentric, even within his own family, Potocki was perhaps most famous during his lifetime for his bold exploits, the most notable of which was the chartering of a hot air balloon over Warsaw – the first such voyage in Poland. As if to ensure that this momentous event would live on in the public consciousness, the Count was accompanied on the journey by his faithful Turkish manservant Osman, and his poodle Lulu, in addition to the French aeronaut Jean Blanchard.
Potocki had an insatiable thirst for knowledge and amongst the professions attributed to him are engineer, ethnologist, Egyptologist, linguist, occultist and author. His inquisitiveness took him on many journeys and during his lifetime he visited most of Europe, as well as Turkey, Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia. On one trip he made it all the way to Ulan Bator in Mongolia, as the scientific adviser of a Russian expedition. The expertise he accumulated on his travels enabled him to publish works on the history of the pre-Slavic people, which helped found the discipline of ethnography, as well as various other historic tomes and travel journals.
A fantastic character, whose lifetime was surrounded by colourful deeds as well as political and personal intrigue, Potocki was to leave this world in a fashion in keeping with his dramatic life. After retiring to his family estate in Podalia, in poor mental and physical health, the most reliable accounts tell us that Potocki blew his brains out with a silver bullet blessed by a priest, believing himself to be a werewolf.
No less fascinating than Potocki’s life was the one great legacy he left in the field of literature: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. Written in French, published anonymously in St. Petersburg and Paris in fragments, translated into Polish, partially lost and then retranslated from the Polish back into French, no complete version of the original currently exists, adding to the mystery of one of one of the world’s most fabulous tales?
The epic begins with a foreword by a French army officer who describes how, following the siege of Saragossa in Spain, he uncovered a manuscript – all about brigands, ghosts and cabbalists – a novel full of strange adventures. The officer then describes how he was captured by the enemy, whereupon a Spanish captain alleviates the book from his possession, thanking him for preserving a work which contained the history of his ancestors. The Spaniard goes on to translate the story into French and the story begins in earnest.
What follows is a tale comparable in scope and complexity only to such seminal texts as Boccacio’s Decameron and A Thousand And One Nights – an elaborate epic of stories within stories within stories, framed by the adventures of the brave young traveller, Alphonse Van Worden, who is waylaid in the mysterious mountain ranges of the Sierra Morena. Abandoned by his servants, Alphonse is forced to take refuge in the haunted Venta Quemada Inn, where he goes to bed with two enchanting Oriental beauties but wakes up between the rotting corpses of two hanged brothers, a vulture perching on top of him.
The scene is set for many more encounters in the mountains with all manner of wondrous characters, each with their own (often very protracted) tale to tell. The stories range from erotic, gothic, romantic, historical and philosophical in nature, and although much of the action takes place in Spain, the reader is often transported to far away places and times, such as Ancient Greece and Rome and Egypt during the time of Cleopatra.
For the modern reader Potocki’s use of narratives within the narratives can prove a little off-putting (at its most intertwined the reader is reading a story within a story within a story within a story within a story) and inevitably, as tales are interrupted and picked up later on in the book, some infuriating backpeddling has to be done to retrieve the plot threads. Even Potocki’s characters are made to apologise as things reach their most convoluted. Of course the interweaving is also half the fun and does a lot to create the novel’s suspense – the greatest conundrum of all being whether Alphonse?s experiences with the supernatural are real, or part of an elaborate hoax. It is only on the 66th and final day of his adventures that the whole truth is revealed to the young traveller.
Many themes are explored by Potocki during the novel, reflecting the Count’s own diverse interests, but one that runs from the very first page to the end is that of “curiosity” leading the books protagonists towards their fates. In this respect the Manuscript is a direct parallel of Apuleius’ classic tale The Golden Ass, in which the hero?s fascination with sex and the occult arts sees him transformed into a donkey and doomed to roam the ancient Greek countryside, picking up stories along the way. This work (incidentally the only Latin novel to have survived antiquity) is a clear forerunner of Potocki’s own masterpiece in which colourful characters tell yet more colourful stories with philosophical motifs, moral conclusions and autobiographical aspects spun into the story. Both are works of great intellects, both hide numerous interpretations and messages – material enough for a thousand essays – but with their twists and turns of fate, their scurrilous details and fantastic happenings the results of both are the same: pure entertainment.