Sunday, March 15, 2015

Characters in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa: Zoto's Father

The father of Zoto the Bandit, also called Zoto (let's call him Zoto Sr.), is something of a mirror image of Alphonse's father, Juan van Worden. Juan's sense of personal honor is so blinding that he sees nothing wrong with the dozens of duels he fights (many of them fatal to his opponents) because he follows the proper etiquette so perfectly.

Zoto Sr. also clings to his identity as a man of honor, both before and after he becomes a bandit and assassin. He's an armourer by trade, but in his city in southern Italy he can barely make enough money in that profession to provide for his family. Then his wife's sister marries a rich oil merchant, and Zoto Sr.'s wife (who is never named) insists on keeping up with her younger sister's displays of wealth and social status.

Zoto Sr. manages to find the funds to buy his wife golden jewelry and a golden hairpin, but then the younger sister appears at church escorted by a lackey in livery. The "lackey" is actually the sister's husband, who would rather pose as a servant than pay a servant to do nothing but escort his wife to church. Zoto Sr. is a proud man, though, and he refuses to follow suit when his wife starts sewing a livery for him. He shells out the gold for an actual servant for the following Sunday, but the writing's on the wall—he can't keep this up.

A shady friend called Monaldi advises Zoto Sr. that he has two options: either establish his dominance over his wife (by beating her with a stick) or turn to a life of crime to finance her vanities.

Zoto Jr. relates what happened next:

   ... my mother had gone after Mass to show off her lackey on the Corso and at various of her friends' houses. Eventually she returned, glowing with triumph, and my father received her in a way she did not expect at all. With his left hand he grasped her left arm and proceeded to put into effect Monaldi's advice. His wife fainted. My father cursed the hazelwood stick and asked for forgiveness; he obtained it and peace was restored.
   A few days later my father sought Monaldi out and told him that the hazelwood stick had not had the desired effect and that he placed himself at the disposal of the brave men of whom Monaldi had spoken.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 5

While I don't approve of Zoto Sr.'s willingness to follow his friend's advice about abusing his wife (there must have been other possible solutions to these marital issues), I do like him more for his immediate repentance. It's hard not to feel some sympathy for Zoto Sr. as Monaldi shows him how to make himself available as a hitman and pay off local law enforcement to look the other way.

Illustration of the costume worn by brigands in the province of Rome at the beginning of the 19th century. In many Enlightenment fictions and Gothic novels, clergy and monastics were often cast as villains, reflecting a cultural sense that they belonged to a corrupt, superstitious past. In an extreme example, Matthew Lewis's novel The Monk is the story of the monk Ambrosio giving in to his lusts and being led into rape, murder, sorcery, and damnation. Jan Potocki isn't quite so rough on religious figures, but he does have the local priest quickly dismiss Zoto Sr.'s misgivings about having committed his first murder. The priest assures Zoto Sr. that it won't cost much to have twenty Masses said at the cathedral for the repose of his victim's soul, and he will be given a general absolution into the bargain.

Within such an atmosphere of corruption, it makes sense that Zoto's father still considers himself a man of honor, because he always keeps his word. In one instance, he is approached by two men separately, each paying him to kill the other. He carries out his first assignment and reports back that the second man is dead. The first man rejoices in having beaten his enemy to the punch—until Zoto Sr., keeping his promise to the second man, draws his dagger and stabs him to death.

In another incident, an elderly gentleman has Zoto Sr. blindfolded and taken to his nearby castle. When the blindfold is removed, Zoto Sr. finds himself standing before the man's wife, who is masked, gagged, and tied to a chair.

   The old gentleman said to him, 'Signor Zoto, here are a hundred more sequins. Be so good as to stab my wife to death.'
   [Zoto's] father, however, replied 'Signor, you are mistaken about me. I lie in wait for people at street corners or I attack them in a wood as befits a man of honour, but I do not undertake the office of public executioner.'
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 5

Zoto Jr. proudly recounts how his father refused this task and returned the money offered him, adding that "[t]his noble and generous action brought great honour on my father...." The son clearly feels no shame whatsoever regarding his father's actions, or his mother's, either. He reports on the end of his father's criminal career, due to his being wounded by a musket shot in the back, reflecting on how well Zoto Sr. provided for the family.

   I suppose that my father used to send us large sums of money, for we had more than we needed for our household. My mother took part in the carnival, and during Lent she had a presepe, or crib, made up of little dolls, sugar castles and similar childish things which are very much in fashion in the kingdom of Naples and are luxuries indulged in by the citizens. My aunt, Signora Lunardo, would also have a presepe, but not nearly as fine as ours.
   From what I can remember of my mother, she seemed to me to be very tender-hearted and we often saw her weep when she thought of the dangers to which her husband was exposed. But a few triumphs over her sister or her neighbours soon dried her tears.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 6

Alphonse van Worden, who has modeled his life on his father's code of honor, is shocked to hear a paid killer described in terms of honor and integrity (even by Zoto Jr., who openly admits to being a bandit himself). For the first time, he questions the values he holds most dear. It won't be the last time, though—Alphonse hears the ending of Zoto's father's story on the sixth day of his journey, and he has sixty more days to go.


This character is introduced in Day 5.