By Jan Potocki. Translated by lan Maclean. Viking. $27. 95. Reviewed by Jonathan Elukin
When Jan Potocki shot himself in 1815--whether out of boredom or madness is unclear--the learned Polish nobleman ended a lifetime of travel, erudition, war, and writing. Educated in Switzerland, he mastered eight languages, traveled ceaselessly throughout the Near East and Europe, fought against Barbary pirates as a Knight of Malta, and moved in Enlightenment circles in pre-Revolutionary Paris. For all that, he was no dilettante. He studied the languages and culture of the Caucasus, and he pioneered the ethnographic study of the Slavic and Caucasian peoples. By 1805 he was so prominent that Czar Alexander chose him to lead an embassy to Peking, though the group was turned back in Mongolia. His service for reactionary monarchs did not prevent him from keeping close contacts with Jacobin groups in Paris. The one constant element throughout Potocki's life and travels was his writing--letters, scholarly tracts, stories, and one large mystifying work of fiction: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.
Written in pieces over many years, and published only partially in his lifetime, the full text was translated from French into Polish in 1847. The original French has been lost, and a recent edition published in Paris is a retranslation from the Polish. It is that version on which this new English translation is based. The disjointed nature of the work and its publication has hindered systematic study of the Manuscript by scholars writing in English. Robert Irwin briefly discusses Potocki in The Arabian Nights: A Companion (Penguin Press, 1994) and sets the work in the context of early modern fantasy literature influenced by The Thousand and One Nights. He has a useful footnote on other treatments of Potocki in English and French. This English edition should stimulate further interest in Potocki and his unique novel.
The story begins at Saragossa with the discovery of a manuscript by a French officer in 1809. The manuscript is written in Spanish, and the officer asks one of his Spanish captors to translate it for him into French, which he then transcribes. The manuscript purports to record the adventures of Alphonse van Worden, an officer of the Walloon Guards, as he travels through the forbidding Sierra Morena mountains in 1739. Van Worden recounts how he is led through a series of encounters with seductive Muslim women, brother and sister kabbalists, the Wandering...