The Manuscript Found in Saragossa
June 2, 2010 2:27 PM   Subscribe

The Saragossa Manuscript is an unusual movie based on a strange book by a remarkable man.

Praised by Buñuel, admired by Coppola and Scorsese, Wojciech Has’ 'The Saragossa Manuscript' (Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie) is a 3-hour-long black-and-white epic with a confusingly complex structure of nested plots and subplots. Byzantine as it may be, the film greatly shortens and simplifies the convolutions in the book, 'The Manuscript Found in Saragossa' (Manuscrit Trouvé à Saragosse), on which it was based. The book's author, Jan Potocki, was an "historian, archaeologist, traveller, ethnographer, orientalist [...] collector, political activist and publicist, printer, aeronaut, novelist and dramatist" whose death, reportedly, was no less extraordinary than the rest of his life:
The thought that he had become a werewolf obsessed him. Potocki is said to have taken the silver knob of a sugar bowl, formed in the shape of a strawberry, and filed this into a bullet, which he had blessed by the castle chaplain. Then on 20 November 1815 (or, depending on your source, 2 or 11 December), he put the bullet in his pistol, stuck the barrel in his mouth, and pulled the trigger, thus earning himself the sobriquet of being “the man who shot himself with a strawberry.”
posted by misteraitch (15 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
"Over a period of 66 days, the young Walloon officer Alphonse van Worden recounts his adventures with gypsies, cabbalists, demons, corpses, astrologers, the Wandering Jew and secret societies."

I think I saw him wandering here at the meta... sounds like the usual cast of characters...
posted by HuronBob at 2:30 PM on June 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I watched this in NY at the anthology film archives back in '02. Highly recommended if you like meta-fiction,
posted by lalochezia at 2:34 PM on June 2, 2010

There are great rewards in this movie for the patient viewer.
posted by lekvar at 2:59 PM on June 2, 2010

It's a fantastic and strange book.

I happened across it in the dumpster of the Salvation Army thrift store where I was working in Brooklyn, and was grabbed by the cover of the particular Penguin Classic Edition (Goya's "Sleeper"). I swiped up the copy and scurried home.

Naturally surprised by the seemingly anachronistic nature of the book and the supposedly mysterious circumstances by which it was found, I read and re read. I can't say for certain that it only influence, but it definitely pointed me in the direction of North Africa.

Eight months later, I arrived in Paris. Eventually I made my way down to the Sierra Morena, battered copy in hand. Following a historic route is burdened by specifics. Not so when following a fictional account. I would break off where the book did, on a meandering path through the Sierra Morena, and hopefully to find the Inn which started it all. Hitching a ride to the Despenaperros, my driver dropped me off at the junction to Aldeaquemada ("Cuidado de los lobos!" he growled at me).

The first night I camped on the ridge overlooking the valley. Darkness came quick, and a wet mist settled over the pines. Huddled in my sleeping bag, I crouched into a warm ball and waited for the sun. That night, I was wrecked by wild dreams of ancient crypts, witches, and living dead. Strange noises scurried through the space between wakefulness. Just at dawn, I was awoken by crashing in the brush and voices. I stumbled to my feet as three men broke through the underbrush. They were carrying baskets. Mushroom hunters.

Later, as the mist lifted, I found a visitors center not far from where I had passed the night. A caretaker arrived and unlocked the door. Strangely, they knew nothing of the book -- but they did tell me the history of the place, of the pre-Roman Mausoleum of caves under our feet. Did it have something to do with the dreams?

I continued onward, eventually arriving in Aldeaquemada, the suggested location of the Venta Quemada. A sleepy mountain town, I finished the book again over cafe and churros. In the forward of the Penguin edition, the translator suggests the Venta, where the hanged men were found, was a fictional location, based on the historic Aldeaquemada. Yet on an old map at the visitors center I clearly saw "Venta Quemada" (high on the upper right).

The Venta was somewhere further East. High up on the a ridge by the waterfall of Cimbarro, I did spot something as the sun was setting. I hurried down the mountain. But as I got to the bottom of the ridge I had lost my bearings and it was growing dark. As I was setting up camp, a park ranger rolled up in a pickup. "Tu puedes dormir aqui. Pero no puedes la!" He pointed to the East. It was hunting season. As if to illustrate his point, a rifle shot echoed off the granite cliffs.

I cut my losses and headed south. It was getting late in the season and each night was colder; soon the Sierra would be empty. Perhaps the Venta did not want to be found.
posted by iamck at 3:42 PM on June 2, 2010 [16 favorites]

Jerry Garcia was a also huge fan and put up some of the money to have it restored.
posted by muckster at 3:49 PM on June 2, 2010

For a novel that was pressed by Penguin, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa is incredibly difficult to find second hand. I've been looking for it for years. Literally, every used book store I enter, I head straight for P, but with never any luck so far.

Sure, there's Amazon, and occasionally I see a new copy, but that defeats the fun. I'm holding out for a Manuscript Found in Saragossa found in a street market in Ougadougou.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:02 PM on June 2, 2010

I have this book -- and a DVD of the restored movie -- and I'm slightly embarrassed to admit that I've made scant progress with either. But I have them, and they are in my queue. Maybe the next time I'm laid up sick I'll reach for one of these instead of my laptop. That book really needs a nice, quiet house and a warm fire to read it by.
posted by mosk at 4:16 PM on June 2, 2010

Great post (and good to see you posting again, misteraitch!); I'm a big fan of the movie, and hope someday to read the book.
posted by languagehat at 4:50 PM on June 2, 2010

Great post, misteraitch, thanks. Anyone have good linkage for the translation controversy surrounding, I think, the Penguin version? From what I remember reading that would make a good post in and of itself.
posted by christopherious at 5:03 PM on June 2, 2010

This book and i have a cursed relationship. i bought it new for a ridicules amount at the Seattle U bookstore (I think something like $50) because i was forced to for an undergrad class I didn't even want to take about 5 years ago. I was really happy to have overpaid though because it was so good. Then I promptly lost it on a Seattle metro bus. Just this last Christmas after searching and searching used book stores in both Seattle and Portland for it I finally found it in Powells but forgot it the next day on the train ride up to Seattle.

The quest continues...
posted by Glibpaxman at 5:05 PM on June 2, 2010

The director Has also made The Hourglass Sanatorium, a curious but compelling film out of the works of Bruno Schulz.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:12 PM on June 2, 2010

Is there any reason to hope that this will be re-born as a graphic novel by Mike Mignola and Richard Corben? Because that would rock.
posted by sneebler at 8:53 PM on June 2, 2010

Song of my soul, my voice is dead,
Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
Lost Carcosa. Saragossa.
posted by SPrintF at 9:32 PM on June 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I didn't know there was a movie and, truth be told, I doubt I have the pluck for another 3 hours of Saragossa. I read as a child a book called 14 days..., which recounted the first 14 days of the story and reread it a few times as I used to do. It was short and rather straightforward. A couple years later I came upon the complete version of the Manuscript and I couldn't make heads or tails of it. At some point the story that was narrated was 8* times removed from the main story: A man told a story, in which someone else would tell a story, in which... When I reread it, juggling the stories within the story was the most enjoyable part of the novel. It's a fun read even though it's not too high-brow.

*It's been years since I last read it, so it may have been 13 stories. I'll go with the most conservative of the numbers.
posted by ersatz at 3:47 AM on June 3, 2010

christopherious - the only controversial-ish aspect to the translation I can recall was that some reviewers compared MacLean's text unfavourably with the previous (incomplete) version by Elisabeth Abbott: I understood that some of those familiar with Abbott's Manuscript thought MacLean's too serious, lacking the older translation's comic touch. I've only read MacLean's translation (which I loved: it's one of my favourite books).

iamck - many thanks for your story, and the intriguing pictures!
posted by misteraitch at 4:34 AM on June 3, 2010

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