Friday, March 27, 2015

Characters in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa: Pandesowna, the Gypsy Chief

If Alphonse van Worden's journey through the Sierra Morena is the skin that encloses all the disparate parts of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, then the life story of Pandesowna is the backbone that holds the most important elements together.

Alphonse meets Pandesowna on Day 11. Two days earlier he received a letter from a friend in the Spanish government, warning him not to proceed to Madrid as planned; there's danger of trouble with the Inquisition, so he needs to delay for three months before reporting to the capital to take up his post as a captain in the Walloon Guards. After a day spent loitering in the castle of the sibling cabbalists, Pedro and Rebecca de Uzeda, Alphonse becomes restless and wanders outside to meet the gypsies who have set up camp nearby. He accepts an invitation by the chief of the gypsies, called Pandesowna, to travel with them for a few weeks through the mountains.

An illustration of the traditional costume of the Vlah gypsies, from a Hungarian book published in 1874.


Once on their way, Alphonse asks the gypsy chief about himself and comments that he must have had many strange adventures in his life of wandering. Pandesowna makes a modest reply:

"Señor caballero, I have indeed seen some extraordinary things since I have lived in these remote parts. As for the rest of my life, however, it comprises quite humdrum events, in which all that is remarkable is the infatuation I showed for experiencing different forms of life, though without embracing any one of them for more than a year or two at a time."
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 12

Either Pandesowna is playfully messing with Alphonse (and us), or his definition of "humdrum events" is very different than mine. The gypsy chief's narrative begins with his being born Juan Avadoro, son of a retiring gentleman in Madrid. The story runs on (and off, as he is frequently interrupted) for some 200 pages, interweaving tales of childish mischief, ill-fated romance, mistaken identity, violent jealousy, and improbable coincidence.

French scholar Yves Citton identified a mode of "carnivalization" in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, with unlikely people being brought together and interacting; eccentric behavior being indulged in without consequences; high culture mixing with low; the sacred and the profane becoming jumbled together.

It reaches its high point in Avadoro's endless metamorphoses across genders and social status, from Elvire, a 'future vice-queen,' to a nameless beggar, to the Marquis Castelli, a courtier plotting among the highest spheres of wealth and power.
— Yves Citton, "Potocki and the spectre of the postmodern," p. 144

What I enjoy most about Juan Avadoro is that, at least in his youth, he seems to tackle life head-on, with boundless enthusiasm and no regard for the consequences. Dressed up spiffy by his doting aunt for a long-delayed reunion with his father, the boy Avadoro thinks it would be funny to climb up on top of the tall cabinet in his father's room; he slips and falls into his father's giant vat of ink, almost drowning before the aunt can rescue him by smashing the ink jar.

Later, when Avadoro and his aunt are traveling to another city, they stop at an inn and meet a young pair of love-struck teenagers. The young couple want to get married, but the girl is supposed to marry the Conde de Peña Vélez, a rich and powerful man who has recently been made the viceroy of Mexico. What does eleven-year-old Avadoro do? Dress up in the girl's clothes to meet the viceroy in her place, so the two young lovers can escape, of course!

It's only later, when Avadoro is riding in a gilded litter, disguised as the bride-to-be, that he gets a good look at the viceroy, a fierce and intimidating man, and starts having second thoughts.

The more I observed the viceroy, the less comfortable I felt. The thought came to me that the moment he discovered that I was a boy would herald a beating the very idea of which made me quake. I did not therefore need to pretend to be shy. I was trembling in all my limbs and did not dare to raise my eyes to anyone.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 17

Among Avadoro's other adventures are his playing a prank on his teacher, a handsome priest; an escape from the Inquisition; getting mistaken for a corpse and smuggled out of a graveyard; becoming a beggar in the streets of Madrid; getting hired as a servant of a worldly libertine; and spending time on a galley, chasing the Barbary pirates.

Avadoro's crazy life reminds me a bit of the life of his creator, Count Jan Potocki. A Polish aristocrat, Enlightmentment thinker, linguist, globe-trotter, travel-writer, Egyptologist, pioneering ethnologist, publisher, playwright ... Potocki reinvented himself as frequently as his fictional character Avadoro does.

In adulthood, Avadoro becomes disillusioned and finally starts to slow down. His first great love, the Duchess of Avila, deceives him, valuing her pride and social status more than their future together, with tragic consequences. Avadoro and his friend Toledo, loyal subjects of the king of Spain, watch as the court is taken over by vapid, fashionable men, like Don Enrique de Velásquez, and meddling flatterers like Don Roque Busqueros. After the king's death, Avadoro becomes involved in the dangerous politics of succession, and he takes on the role of the Marchese Castelli, a Sardinian gentleman. In the guise of an Italian serving an Austrian archduke in Spain, he is betrayed by his fellow Spaniards, who turn against him, and he has to flee for his life.

The life of author Jan Potocki also took a depressing downturn. Both his marriages ended in scandal and divorce. Poland, the country he loved, was dismantled and divvied up into pieces claimed by three powerful neighboring countries in 1795; it would not regain its independence until after World War I. An Enlightenment thinker who socialized with leading figures of the Jacobin Club, men who supported the French Revolution, Potocki lived to see their revolutionary ideals deteriorate into the oppression and mass executions of the Reign of Terror.

Looking back on his life, the elderly Juan Avadoro, who has found peace and anonymity in the identity of Pandesowna the gypsy chief, reflects

I have even been inconstant in my inconstancy, because in my travels and wandering I have always been haunted by the idea of tranquil happiness and a life of retirement, and the taste of something new has always lured me from such a life, so that now that I finally know myself for what I am I have put an end to these restless alternatives by settling down with this gypsy band. In one way it is a sort of retirement to an orderly way of life, but at least I do not have the misfortune of always looking out on the same trees and rocks or, what would be even more intolerable, the same streets, the same walls and the same roofs.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 12

I can't help but wonder whether Potocki was thinking of his own situation — middle-aged, in poor health, and retired on his estate in what's now the Ukraine — when he wrote about always looking out on the same trees and rocks. Perhaps his story would have had a happier ending if he had been able to disappear into the mountains and live among the gypsies.


This character is introduced in Day 11.