October 4, 2009 § 1 Comment
Now reading: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.
Life is a matter of listening as much as doing; a matter of stories as much as events. Is this a message (a moral?) I’m imposing on the work, or is it intentionally buried in its structure? I suspect it’s the former, but Potocki seems to have been so sensitive to his eccentric work’s effects on his readers that I’m not entirely sure.
One reason I suggest this is the recurring theme of stories that reflect upon and/or interpret the events in one or more of their framing narratives. A straightforward example is “The Story of Thibaud de la Jacquiére,” on the tenth day. Van Worden, wondering whether his “adorable and adoring” cousins might actually be “sprites,” “witches,” or “vampires” who are playing tricks on him, reads the story in a 17th-century collection of German tales. A kind of erotic prodigal-son story, it involves a young man seducing a beautiful stranger, only to find her transformed into Beelzebub as they have sex. He wakes up on top of a corpse in a garbage dump, then repents with his last breath.
This kind of correspondence between levels of narrative makes you think something’s up: is the whole thing going to end up being a dream, or some kind of farfetched plot to teach van Worden a lesson, or are there actual supernatural forces at work, or what? In fact, even van Worden seems to sense that something’s up, since after reading he only “almost” comes to believe that his cousins are demons. This might be a poor example for the point I set out to make, actually, since it’s a little too pat; there are other stories which seem to comment on van Worden’s couching of all virtue in honor, or on the plot developments with the haunted (?) Venta Quemada. In fact, there’s a possible counter to the story of Thibaud: the Gypsy Chief’s adventures with the Knight of Toledo, a libertine who repents after an apparent supernatural experience, only to find it was actually an extraordinary set of coincidences that scared him so; he leaves his excessively monastic penance, instead doing good and revealing his virtuous character.
The story of Pandesowna, the Gypsy Chief, was what brought this possible moral to mind for me. This one story is actually the bulk of the book: appearing, frequently interrupted, from the twelfth to the 62nd day, containing many further layers of story. Pandesowna’s life story contains many incidents, to be sure, but much of it is composed of the stories of others: Pandesowna listening, in other words. What moves his own story forward is his and others’ reactions to narratives, the stories of others and the emotions they provoke. And this infects the top level of the narrative’s reality: van Worden and the others await the continuation of the chief’s story just as he awaits the stories of those he hears, and many days pass in which nothing happens but the group waiting for Pandesowna to continue his tale. (There’s more than a little of the Thousand and One Nights in this day-to-day interruption and continuation of the narrative.) Is the work actually a moral progress whereby van Worden comes to see that virtue is not only a matter of honor, but of empathy, as well?
I think perhaps I’m not doing this aspect of the work justice: it’s a rather beautiful effect, the way it points out (in its plot- and genre-besotted way) how much it matters to think and care about the stories you read and hear, the people you meet, to weigh them judiciously without rashly judging (after all, I don’t know yet whether or not Emina and Zubeida actually are demons, and neither does van Worden). One of the great meta-themes and justifications of literature, as many people have said, is this vicarious living of many lives, fictional or not. But I digress. I hope I can work this in some more in my subsequent posts on the book.