The Mysterious Muslim Babes of Spain

October 3, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.

That title may seem like a transparent attempt to drum up some misguided traffic (in the grand tradition of my previous posts  “Blogging About Flogging” and “Tales of Ribaldry”), but it’s actually a fairly accurate representation of the key to the action in the framing narrative (really the largest frame within the frame about the manuscript’s later discovery — the first example of the play with time in the narrative, the looping back from the present/future into the past).  There really are mysterious Muslim babes here, presented as such, if not in so many words.  They’re exotically transgressive and objectified and, oh yeah, they may actually be part of a plot to convince our hero, Alphonse van Worden, to reject Christianity and accept Islam, or they may be  succubi.  Did I mention that these sisters, Emina and Zubeida, also claim to be van Worden’s cousins, of the famous Gomelez family, holders of the “secret of the Gomelez”?  It all gets very weird and, for the 1810s, pretty racy (there’s definitely three-way sex going on here, or at least the illusion of such).

So all of that seems like it’s straight out of Orientalism 101, and it surely is, but Potocki also complicates the expected narrative in interesting ways.  Though there are many apparently supernatural events  in which the sisters are (apparently) involved which lead us, the readers, to believe they are demons, van Worden refuses to believe it.  On the seventh day, the sisters are finally able to remove from van Worden’s neck the necklace holding a relic of the true cross; they then consummate their relationship and, in van Worden’s words, “my charming companions became my wives….  And I am led to conclude that my cousins played no real part in my dreams at the Venta Quemada.”  After the consummation, the Muslim Sheikh of the Gomelez appears; but Emina says to van Worden, “… listen carefully to what I am now saying to you.  Do not believe any ill that is spoken of us.  Do not even believe the evidence of your eyes.”

Van Worden bases all of his self-worth in his honor; he has accepted the girls as his wives (granted, after irresistable seduction and some trickery); and so, even when it seems evident to the reader that he is, in fact, at the mercy of either demons or a convoluted plot to win his soul for Islam, he continues to believe Emina’s words.  He believes they are his cousins.  And, as I’ll talk about later, the battle between reason and faith that develops in the text also undermines our own belief in the supernatural events we’ve apparently witnessed.

There’s also Potocki’s very interesting handling of van Worden; he is a rather opaque character.  We often do not receive from him the reactions to stories or events that we might expect; his morality is kept rather vague, except for its grounding in the maintenance of honor; in the middle of the book he retreats into the background, mostly just narrating the events between stories without comment.  His impressions of Islam, especially, are ambiguous.  Later introductions of Jewish, deistic, and other Islamic characters further muddy the waters: the question becomes, how are we the readers intended to react?  There are certainly crude slurs on the Jews and Muslims here — but they are also presented telling their own stories, often quite empathetic stories, and presented as worthy of our attention and interest.

Spain, as a land of Romance and mystery at the time Potocki was writing, plays a part here.  Reading a story set in Spain at the time Potocki was writing could alert the reader to the fact that the story would be fantastic and exotic — operating at a fictional level where some acceptance of and commerce with fictional Jews and Muslims could be permitted.  Also important is Potocki’s shuffling of genre: he’s very self-conscious about playing with the already trite genres his characters sometimes work in, very self-conscious at times of reminding us that we’re reading a novel, an entertainment trying to titillate, intrigue, excite, and amuse us.

Anyway, I clearly have some criticism to read.  In the meantime, the latest developments in my reading so far are the events of the 29th and 30th days.  Van Worden, to prove his bravery to a bunch of people he doesn’t know, goes into the “kingdom of the gnomes” underground.  Two “chthonic divinities” approach him in the dark, which turn out to be his cousins.  They further tempt him to convert, then they have some sex, and then van Worden wakes up alone in the tunnels under a mountain.  This turns out to be “the underground domain of the Cassar Gomelez,” where the secret is guarded by a “dervish” that van Worden meets.  He gives his word not to reveal the secret, and so we are left in the dark; but we do see “a golden tree representing the genealogy of the Gomelez.  The trunk split into two major branches, one of which, the Muslim Gomelez, seemed to unfold and flourish with all the force of a vigorous plant, while the other, representing the Christian Gomelez, was visibly withering and bristled with long and menacing pointed thorns.”

In this book of connections between stories and among different levels of stories, this episode reminded me of a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, the Principessa di Monte Salerno’s Story on the thirteenth day.  The Principessa shows her guest underground vaults containing automata made of jewels and precious metals, incredible lost treasures from the history of art, and many other wonders; but it turns out that she is a demonic ghost who, when alive, “publicly declared that she possessed paradise on earth” and renounced Christianity, and now haunts the ruins of her former paradise.  It was all an illusion.  I wonder what this all means for the fabulous underground lair van Worden visits; and I wonder if he wonders about that story, which he heard, and whether he’s meant to connect it to what he appears to be experiencing.

(As a footnote: these two episodes are strong reminders of Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets, pretty much the most awesome work of criticism I’ve ever read, with its examination of grottoes, automata, speaking idols, and the submerged irrational in art, language, literature, culture.  I know I’ve plugged it before; I’m doing it again now.  Surprising she didn’t discuss this book, actually, although she does mention it once.)

Tales of Ribaldry: The Third Day

June 6, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: The Decameron.

Remember that Saturday Night Live sketch “Tales of Ribaldry,” with Jon Lovitz playing a Victorian fop who pants with excitement at the double entendres and glimpses of flesh in the melodramas he introduces? That’s kind of what the third day reminded me of: things get spicy and sacrilegious and you can almost imagine the naughty giggles from the nine listeners. Maybe it’s because they took two days off; typically, Boccaccio says they take Friday and Saturday to pray and respect the Passion of the Lord and the Virgin Mother, but there’s no mention of organized worship or clergy.

All of the stories (except Dioneo’s) revolve around loves lost and regained, or won eventually through great effort. Many seem archetypal and influential. Emilia’s story, the eighth, put me in mind of Romeo and Juliet (although I don’t think it’s a direct ancestor): it tells of an Abbot who uses a “special powder” to knock Ferondo unconscious and make him seem dead, in order to have some fun with Ferondo’s wife while Ferondo is convinced he’s in Purgatory and receiving beatings twice a day. Many involve mistaken identities, often unrecognized royalty or nobility (more Shakespearean resonances here).

My favorite sequence of stories is the third through the fifth, which offer three presentations of the same central plot element. In each, a lustful relationship is consummated by using a surrogate and ventriloquizing in one way or another: first, a woman leaving instructions for trysts by “complaining” to a confessor, who scolds the desired lover for the behavior the confessor thinks he’s already done (but can only do with his directions). Then a horny monk prescribes a difficult penance for a pious husband, assuring that he will tell his wife what he must do and thereby indicate to her where and when they should get it on. Finally, best of all, a forlorn lover is granted a meeting with the object of his affection, but her husband insists that she must not speak during this meeting. The lover gets around the problem and wins her over by making an eloquent statement of his love, then by responding to it in her voice as he imagines it, sets up a tryst to which she consents. (Boccaccio! What a masterful job of tying his stories together in ways like this, little and small: far more than a series of little stories, they form a chain of themes, elements, archetypes, allusions. It’s really been an incredibly pleasurable reading experience so far, much more than all the lust and clergy-hatred would make you think.)

Most of the stories end with the lovers “enjoying” their love, and some of the stories end with the teller asking “May God grant that we enjoy ours likewise.” Lots of flirting going on, and it would seem from the conclusion of this day that we’re to believe that no one’s actually had sex yet. I don’t buy it! Orgies nightly!

One last note: it’ll probably be like this every day, but Dioneo’s story really is remarkably dirty. I feel like I’ve heard it before, maybe just as a joke or retold in The Canterbury Tales or something: the story of a hermit and a pious young woman in the desert. It’s a story built around the hermit convincing the girl, punningly, that her salvation depends on “putting the Devil back into Hell.” If you know what I mean. What a perv this guy is!

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