Here are two accounts of how The Manuscript Found in Saragossa reached the public.
It’s 1809 and France is at war with Spain. The Peninsular War began with Napoleon’s armies working with Spain to invade and occupy Portugal, but then Napoleon saw an opportunity to invade Spain as well. France took control of northeastern Spain quickly but wasn’t prepared for the wave of popular uprisings in cities and towns against the French governors. The war’s bloodiest struggles occurred at the city of Zaragoza (also called Saragossa), an old city protected by two rivers and two medieval walls.
The Spanish repelled a series of attacks on Zaragoza during the summer of 1808, and the French retreated temporarily, to return in December with more troops and sixty siege guns. After a month of bombardments, illness, and heavy casualties on both sides, the French broke through the fortifications and the fighting moved into the city’s narrow streets. On February 20, 1809, the Spanish surrendered. Of Zaragoza’s original garrison of 32,000 soldiers, only 8,495 men remained alive.
Now the city is in ruins. The terms of surrender state that private property will be respected, so Zaragoza doesn't get sacked, but some looting does take place. One French officer, wandering the city, comes upon a small house he doesn’t think has been looted yet, but when he goes inside it appears everything of value has been taken. He picks up some notebooks, handwritten in Spanish. He knows just enough of the language to figure out that it’s the diary of a young officer who traveled through the Sierra Morena mountains in 1739. The diary records not only the officer’s experiences but also the stories told by people he met on his journey, and among the characters are bandits, ghosts, cabbalists, gypsies, and doomed lovers. The book looks entertaining, so the French officer takes it with him.
Later on, his unit leaves the city and gets separated from the rest of the French army corps. His unit gets captured by Spanish forces, who strip the prisoners of all their possessions. The French officer begs to be allowed to keep one thing: the strange manuscript. This makes his Spanish captors curious, and they check with their captain. The captain recognizes the manuscript’s value and thanks the French prisoner for keeping it intact, as it contains the history of his ancestors. The two men eventually form a partnership, with the Spanish captain translating the story and the Frenchman writing it down, which is why the story eventually came to be published in French.
That’s the explanation you read in the foreword of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. It’s a remarkable story. It’s also totally made up. The Second Siege of Zaragoza really happened, but everything about the French officer finding the notebooks in Spanish? A complete fiction.
Why did author Jan Potocki make up this fake account of a mysterious manuscript? There are lots of theories. One of the charms of the book is its strange, mysterious atmosphere, full of dark destinies and unlikely happenings. Maybe the author thought it was a good way to set the stage.
Another possibility is that the author wanted an excuse to use when the authorities came calling. Censorship was a serious concern at the time, and there was plenty in the book that people wanted to censor: political satire, religious satire, occultism, sex, infidelity, seduction. Maybe the author was worried that he’d get in legal trouble and wanted to be able to say, “What, this crazy thing? I didn’t write this book – some French guy found it in a deserted house in Spain.”
Okay, here’s another account of how we came to have The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.
An 18th-century Polish count from an aristocratic family spends his life traveling the world. Around the age of 50, in poor health, he retires to his castle at Uładówka in Podolia (now part of Ukraine) to finish the novel he has been working on for years. Some early chapters of the book, written in French, have been published in St. Petersburg, but the count seems unable to finish the work, nervous about how the public will respond to it. Other pieces of the book appear in Paris in 1813, but the count never presents the whole novel to the public. In 1815 he commits suicide by shooting himself, for reasons which are unclear. One story claims that he was convinced he was a werewolf and fashioned a silver bullet, which he had blessed by the castle’s chaplain before using it to blow his brains out.
The count’s death doesn't stop the circulation of the manuscript, which he seems to have finished in the last year of his life. The manuscript gets plagiarized three times in the next twenty-five years, and is the subject of a lawsuit. At one point a complete manuscript in French must have existed, because Polish literary figure Edmund Chojecki translates it into Polish in 1847. The full French manuscript becomes lost, so that for decades about a fifth of the book is only available in Polish.
Scholars keep hoping that the lost French manuscript will resurface. In 1989 they generally give up and the complete story is published in French, using the missing pieces translated back into French from Chojecki’s Polish version. Today the book is well known in Poland and France, but it's fairly obscure in English-speaking countries. The main English version of the complete book was first published in 1995.
This is also a remarkable story. It also happens to be true (most of it, anyway – the part about the count thinking he was a werewolf is probably a myth).
I'm not sure which version is stranger.
Source: Introduction to The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, translated by Ian MacLean, Penguin Classics, 1996.