6 November 2011

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Potocki, 1814

Filed under: Fiction — ktismatics @ 6:34 pm

…My father spent three years with the Camaldolese monks. The good fathers managed by means of assiduous care and angelic patience to restore to him the use of his reason. He then went to Madrid and called on the minister. This gentleman called him into his office and said, “Señor Don Enrique, your affair has come to the ears of the king, who has blamed this mistake on me and on my office. But I showed him your letter signed Don Carlos and here it is. Please tell me why you didn’t put your own name on it.”

My father took the letter, recognized his handwriting and said to the minister, “Alas, Your Excellency, I now remember that at the moment of signing the letter my brother’s arrival was announced. The joy of hearing his name must have made me put it in the place of mine. But it isn’t this mistake which caused my misfortunes. Even if the commission of colonel-general had been sent in my name, I would not have been able to exercise the office. Today my sanity has been restored and I now feel able to carry out the plan which the king then had.”

“My dear Enrique,” said the minister, “all the proposals for fortification have been abandoned and at court it is not the custom to mention again things which have been forgotten about. All I can offer you is the office of commandant of Ceuta. That is the only vacancy I have. And you will have to leaver for Ceuta without seeing the king. I admit that the office is beneath your talents and it is moreover unkind at your age to be confined to a rock in Africa.”

“That is precisely what attracts me to the post,” replied my father. “It seems to me that I shall escape my cruel fate by leaving Europe; by going to another part of the world I shall become as it were another man, and shall find peace and happiness there under the influence of more favourable stars.”

My father quickly collected his orders as commandant, went to Algeciras, from where he set sail, and arrived without mishap in Ceuta. As he disembarked there, he experienced a delicious feeling. It seemed to him that he had reached port after many long days of stormy weather…

So my father, living the life of the mind, passed in turn from observation to meditation, nearly always confined to his residence. The continual efforts to which he subjected his intellect made him often forget that cruel period of his life when his reason had given way under the weight of his misfortunes. But often, too, the past would claim its due. This would occur mostly in the evenings, after the labours of the day had exhausted his mind. Then, since he was not used to seeking distractions outside his own company, he would climb up to the terrace and look across the sea to the horizon, edged in the distance by the coasts of Spain. This view reminded him of those glorious and happy days when he was cherished by his family, loved by his mistress, admired by men of worth, and his soul, burning with the fire of youth and lit by the wisdom of a mature intellect, opened itself to all those feelings that are the delight of human life and all those thoughts that dignify the human spirit.

Then he remembered his brother robbing him of his mistress, his fortune and his rank and himself lying on the straw, deprived of his reason. Sometimes he took up his violin and played the fatal saraband which decided Bianca in favour of Carlos. This music provoked him to tears. When he had cried he felt relief. Fifteen years went by in this manner.

One evening the Lieutenant-Governor of Ceuta, having some business to transact with my father, visited him quite late and found him in one of his melancholy moods. Having thought for a moment, he said, “My dear commandant, I beg you to pay attention to me. You are unhappy and you are sorrowful. That is no secret. We know it and so does my daughter. She was five when you came to Ceuta and since then not a day has passed without her hearing you spoken of with adoration, for you are the tutelary deity of our little colony. Often she has said to me, ‘Our dear commandant only feels his sorrows so deeply because he has no one to share them with.’ Come and see us, Don Enrique. It will do you more good than counting the waves of the sea.”

So my father let himself be taken to Inés de Cadanza. He married her six months later, and I was born ten months after their marriage.

When the weak child that I was first saw the light of day, my father took me in his arms, raised his eyes to heaven and said, “Oh almighty power, whose exponent is immensity, oh last term of all ascending series, oh my God, behold another sensible being projected into space. If he is destined to be as unhappy as his father may you in your mercy mark him with the sign of subtraction.”

Having thus prayed, my father kissed me passionately and said, “No, my poor child, you will not be as unhappy as I have been. I swear by the holy name of God that I will never teach you mathematics but you will know the saraband, the ballets of Louis XIV and every other form of impertinence which comes to my attention.” Then my father bathed me in his tears and gave me back to the midwife.

Now I beg you to note the strangeness of my fate. My father swears never to teach me mathematics and swears to teach me to dance. Well, the reverse happened. It has turned out that I know a great deal about the exact sciences and I am incapable of learning, I won’t say the saraband because that’s no longer in fashion, but any other dance. In fact, I cannot conceive how one can remember the steps of the quadrille. There are indeed no dance steps which are produced by a point of origin whose sequence is governed by a consistent rule. They cannot be represented in formulas and it seems inconceivable to me that there are people who can retain them in their memory.

As Don Pedro de Velásquez reached this point in his story, the gypsy chief came into the cave and said that it was in the interests of the band to move on and retire further into the Alpujarras mountains…



  1. At first I thought Potoki was an invention of Eco’s as a carrier for disquisitions on the occult and the arcane but I recollected that nature is profligate of events which vanquish man’s puny fables. The life of Potoki seems more uncanny that any of his stories. “Fifteen years went by in this manner”. This is full strength nostalgia. Wonderful line.

    Thank you for this incitement to read.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 7 November 2011 @ 6:19 am

  2. Right, ombhurbhuva: it seems that Potocki lived an eventful life. I didn’t know that Eco wrote about Potocki, but yes, one of the other adventurers in this novel is the Cabalist, and the next tale following the one I’ve excerpted here is “The Wandering Jew’s Story.” The book consists almost entirely of stories and stories-within-stories, the glue holding them together being an expedition led by a Spanish soldier from Andalusia, across the treacherous Sierra Morena mountains, to La Mancha. In your comment I thought you were making a remark similar to someone’s, I forget whose, about the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, to the effect that, if Pessoa had not existed, Borges would have had to invent him. It’s quite a long book: I’ve made it only halfway through but it’s due back at the library tomorrow.


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 November 2011 @ 8:21 am

  3. Ktismatics:
    That idea about Eco was a whimsy of mine own. What I read in wikipedia about him (Potocki) using a silver bullet fashioned from the knob on the lid of a sugar bowl to kill himself with after having it blessed by his chaplain put me in mind of Van Helsing’s recipe for the permanent laying of vampires. “The branch of wild rose on his coffin keep him that he move not from it, a sacred bullet fired into the coffin kill him so that he be true dead and as for the stake through him, we know already of its peace, or the cut off head that giveth rest.”

    A determined if demented fabulist.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 7 November 2011 @ 3:39 pm

  4. Vampires do populate the Spanish mountains in the Saragossa stories, though in this early 19th century work they don’t yet seem to possess most of the defining characteristics we now attribute to the species. Here the vampires are two enchantresses who under various guises repeatedly lure the narrator into amorous three-way encounters, but when he awakens he finds himself lying in the dust between the rotting corpses of two hanged men. Curiously, I was reading Dracula when the reserved copy of Potocki’s book arrived at the library.


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 November 2011 @ 3:56 pm

  5. Incidentally, the central character of this novel, the soldier who leads the expedition through the Spanish mountains, is named Alphonse van Worden.


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 November 2011 @ 6:37 pm

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