Die Handschrift von Saragossa

by Jan Potocki (Herausgeber)

Other authorsRoger Caillois (Editor)
Paperback, 1997



Call number

KO 9033 H236



Insel Verlag (1975), 869 pages


Alphonse, a young Walloon officer, is travelling to join his regiment in Madrid in 1739. But he soon finds himself mysteriously detained at a highway inn in the strange and varied company of thieves, brigands, cabbalists, noblemen, coquettes and gypsies, whose stories he records over sixty-six days. The resulting manuscript is discovered some forty years later in a sealed casket, from which tales of characters transformed through disguise, magic and illusion, of honour and cowardice, of hauntings and seductions, leap forth to create a vibrant polyphony of human voices. Jan Potocki (1761-1812) used a range of literary styles - gothic, picaresque, adventure, pastoral, erotica - in his novel of stories-within-stories, which, like the Decameron and Tales from the Thousand and One Nights, provides entertainment on an epic scale.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member William345
Unlike many so called classic texts I have read this one doesn't seem to have dated much. At least not in its first half. The writing is thought by scholars to have begun about 1809. As Salman Rushdie says in an attached blurb "...it reads like the most brilliant modern novel." I think that might
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be an effect of the recent English translation offered here that seems to give the text such a contemporary feel, like a modern-day historic novel.

The premise is that in the 1760s a Walloon officer named Alphonse (commissioned by Philip V) while traveling on leave in Andalucia, for centuries an Islamic land until the Reconquista, finds himself skirting a realm of ghosts, phantoms, specters, kindly bandits, storytelling gypsies and cabbalists. Because he does not at first succumb to the erotic offerings of these creatures--he has a very obnoxious sense of personal honor--he is able to preserve enough presence of mind to chronicle the many weird goings on.

The book is full of the so called Magic Realism used by Garcia Marquez and Rushdie himself. There are stories nested within stories nested within stories. The narrative is very straightforward. The characters wake up, go out, have dinner, come home, have sex, go to sleep, get up in the morning, and so on, and all of this action occurs during the briefest passages of text. There is the sense of the action moving full-tilt, almost out of control, but never really. It is only the impression created by the author's highly compressed style.

Among the treats offered by the narrative are vast underground hideouts carved out of the stone, sun-scorched landscapes à la Don Quixote, convincing erotic encounters between men and women, abrupt murders, sometimes by the score. At a haunted inn phantoms show up at the stroke of midnight, though it is not known from whence the tolling comes. A motif of two men hanged on a gibbet, supposedly brothers of the bandit Zoto, who tells his story here, recurs throughout the early pages. At night the men leave the gibbet and get into mischief.

There are strange elixirs to be drunk, seeming transportations through time and space, usually during a dream. On the whole the book a kind of onieric wonderland where men are men and women are women of a thankfully extinct old school, except when they're murdering succubi who only wish to eat young men because of the wonderful effect their blood has on the demonic constitution.

Then the Walloon officer succumbs, as he must, to the charms of the two Muslim women, who from the start have told him they are his cousins. A man who watches their erotic encounter sees only Alphonse sexually intimate with the two hanged men. From then on Alphonse seems to take some leave of his senses and is never sure if those Muslim women are his cousins / defacto wives or not. He sees them here in a pair of gypsy sisters, there in two women walking in the desert, but again it's not them. Later, he casts caution to the wind when he goes to meet them in an underground chambre d'amour. Who can blame him? It's either go insane or enjoy great if perhaps demonic sex with hot sisters!

In the meantime the gypsy leader tells his story, the geometer or mathematician tells his, the Wandering Jew tells his, the two Muslim "cousins" tell theirs, the male cabbalist tells his, the female cabbalist tells hers, and so on. All of the characters seek to tell stories that seem realistically within their realm of competence/experience. It is only the geometer's tale that seems to falter in the mid to late stages. One gets the impression that author Potocki had committed himself to a line of disquisition that he could not sustain. An astonishing novel of enormous complexity that is nevertheless highly readable, even difficult to put aside when sleep calls. Please read it.

PS. Some time later I began reading Matthew G. Lewis's The Monk. It seems unlikely that it was not a model for Potocki.
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LibraryThing member GrrlEditor
The weirdest book I read in all of 2007. A bizarre cross of Don Quixote and the Decameron. A crazy framework of stories within stories within stories ... at one point even one of the characters within the story starts taking notes in order to keep it all straight. Conspiracy theories, romances,
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hanged men who keep coming back from the dead, great adventures, quite a bit of sex, a lot of fun! Who would have guessed it was written around 1800!
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LibraryThing member Branduno
Mysterious, unsettling, and a great deal of fun, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa is a frame tale that contains as many styles of storytelling as it does characters. The confident but naive Alphonse Van Worden makes his way across the mountainous Spanish countryside, encountering seductive Moorish
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princesses, worldly nomad kings, monks, demoniacs, mystics, mathematicians, and the Spanish Inquisition, each of whom has a meandering and multi-layered tale to tell, and any of whom could be a vampire, or a member of an Illuminati-like secret society, or just a lying crazy person. Except the Spanish Inquisition. They neither have a tale to tell nor are they suspected of being vampires or heathens, but they do plan to torture Van Worden, so I suppose that makes up for it.

The author, Jan Potocki, was a 19th Century explorer, ethnographer, Freemason, and balloonist whose obsessions with The Thousand And One Nights and secret societies show in his book. This translation by Ian MacLean is very readable, and he cerainly had a job of it--the book's publication history is as convoluted and mysterious as the stories within, as detailed in this edition's introduction.
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LibraryThing member Moghedianx7
What an amazing book to get lost in! And at times I do mean that literally! Stories within stories within stories...I think I counted 6 stories deep, don't take my word for it it's been a few years.
LibraryThing member AmaliaGavea
Without pretentious pseudo-philosophies and further ado, this book is one of the best examples of Historical Fiction ever produced, in all its weird glory, beauty and fascination. History, Myths, Apocrypha, Religion,Philosophy....you name it.
LibraryThing member liz.wuerker
have bought it as a gift for two other people since reading it and recommended it to two others. It's a captivating and complex book and a humorous one. It feels very modern. One of its characteristics is the story within a story (within a story within a story...). I found myself drawn in quickly
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and entertained. Potocki parodies ideas of chivalry and honor while exposing real human motivations. The stories in the book are interesting if sometimes confusing. Often one is started and alluded to or continued later, so the version I read included a guide that could help you refresh your memory.
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LibraryThing member bibliobeck
Fascinating book - shame about the cover... looks like some sleezy 60s thing! Far from it, this is a book of stories and of stories within stories. Some romance, some magic, even some mechanical underground dwarves. Loads of bandits and vengance and as I was reading the book I kept thinking how
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wonderful if Quentin Tarantino turned some of these tales into film. They are the perfect vehicle for his style of production, add some of his amazing music choice and I think it would be a sure winner. That also illustrates how well the book has moved with the times. These stories could fit into any culture and any time. So glad I found this little gem of a book.
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LibraryThing member NaggedMan
I didn't bother to finish the book, having got through one third without finding anything other than mild distraction. Others have scored it highly, so perhaps just not my cup of tea!
LibraryThing member JosephCamilleri
Count Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa has somewhat of a cult following amongst fans of Gothic fiction. It consists of a collection of supernatural tales linked together by a complex series of frame stories, as in a nightmarish hall of mirrors. It has been called a "black
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Decameron". This is a really apt description, considering that practically all Gothic tropes are represented in the convoluted text: from ghosts to vampires, secret societies to violent bandits, underground passages to haunted castles. A bonus for Melitensia enthusiasts – one of the stories features a Knight of Malta who murders a rival in Strait Street, Valletta just up the road from where I earn my daily bread (in decidedly more mundane environs).
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LibraryThing member kakadoo202
While it is nicely written, it just feels like a lot of short stories that are just too short.
Stopped after 153 pages


Original language


Original publication date

1804-1805 (first part ∙ 13 days, printed proofs)
1813 (Paris, 4 vol., days 12-56 with lacunae, titled Avadoro: histoire espagnole)
1814 (Paris, 3 vol., days 1-10, 14, titled Dix journées de la vie d'Alphonse van Worden)
1847 (complete Polish translation)
1958 (Caillois|incomplete, approx. one fourth of the text)
1989 (René Radrizzani| [1805])
2006 (François Rosset and Dominique Triaire| [1810])

Physical description

869 p.; 6.93 inches


3458318399 / 9783458318392
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