Sunday, May 31, 2015

Characters in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa: Don Roque Busqueros

Up to this point, I've written about some of the most likable characters in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. Even Juan van Worden, who fights often-fatal duels over the most insignificant issues of honor, doesn't seem to actually mean anyone any harm.

That changes when we get to Don Roque Busqueros, although when we first meet him, he seems harmless enough. He's introduced as part of the story of Lopez Soarez, who himself forms part of Pandesowna's rambling life story.

Soarez is a straight man, the son of a wealthy Cadiz merchant, sent to Madrid to oversee his father's business interests. Soarez recounts how, within hours of his arriving at the capital and settling into a room at an inn, he heard the handle of the door move. He crossed the room and opened the door suddenly, hitting someone in the nose.

That someone, Don Roque Busqueros, showed no shame or even embarrassment at being caught spying on a stranger.

   'Señor,' I said, 'if you had simply intended to come in, I would have given you a bump on the forehead with the door. But as you have got a grazed nose I think that you perhaps had your eye to the keyhole.'
   'Bravo!' said the stranger. 'Your intelligence is remarkably sharp. It is true that, wishing to make your acquaintance, I wanted in advance to get some idea of the sort of person you were. And I have been charmed by your noble way of walking round your room and putting away your belongings.'
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 33

That's Busqueros in a nutshell: a blatant boot-licker, kissing up to anyone with influence, wealth, or power; an unrepentant snoop, nosing around to find any information that might give him an advantage; and completely incompetent at both ingratiating himself and spying.

Once Busqueros attached himself, barnacle-like, to Suarez, no effort would dislodge him. At first Soarez didn't mind so much, because he knew almost no one in the city, and he found Busqueros amusing. Then he fell in love with an elegant, refined young lady named Inés, whom he met strolling through the Buen Retiro (Madrid's version of Central Park). Soarez had just begun a very tentative, courtly conversation with her when suddenly Busqueros appeared, interrupting them.

   'I compliment you, Señora,' he said, 'on getting to know the famous son of the richest merchant of Cadiz.'
— The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 33

Insulted at the suggestion that she was pursuing Soarez for his riches, Inés left abruptly. Soarez managed to make contact with her again, first in church and then in the park, but he went to great lengths to ditch Busqueros whenever he wanted to see her. Soarez once considered climbing a tree to hide from him.

At one point, Busqueros prattled on and on with an endless story, refusing to stop when Soarez was late for a critical rendezvous with Inés. When Soarez insisted on leaving, Busqueros felt insulted and challenged Soarez to a duel, in which he severely wounded him in the shoulder. Then Busqueros expressed his delight at having a new opportunity to demonstrate his devotion to Soarez, by nursing him back to health.

Busqueros's bumbling attempts to help Soarez almost derailed the courtship of Inés again and again, but eventually the two did get married. Busqueros pestered the young newlyweds until they paid him a purse of gold "for services he claimed to have rendered."

Around this point in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, the slippery Busqueros escapes the confines of the story that Lope Suarez is telling to the young Juan Avadoro (who later becomes Pandesowna, the Gypsy King) and gets himself entangled in Juan's own life. In this role he becomes a more sinister figure, a real threat to others' happiness. Does he become more ambitious and ruthless, or does he simply become more competent at the traps and manipulations he always aspired to? It's unclear.

Busqueros certainly separates Don Felipe Avadoro from his money without too much difficulty. When Juan becomes involved in highly sensitive matters in the Spanish court—intrigues that seem to connect the Duchess of Avila to a secret child of the royal bloodline—Busqueros always seems to be nosing around, ready to foul things up.

A little clique of ne'er-do-wells gains favor at court: Busqueros; the former Gita Cimiento, who conspired in the downfall of Juan's father Don Felipe and is now married to Busqueros himself; the amoral Duke of Arcos; and the duke's lover, the brazen, flirtatious Frasqueta Salero, now called Señora Uscariz. Juan Avadoro has been honored with the Cross of Calatrava for his faithful service to his country, and he is enraged to discover that Busqueros has obtained the same honor through scheming and flattery. Busqueros gains even more power as the informant of Cardinal Manuel Fernandez de Portocarrero, an influential statesman.

Much later, when Juan is in political exile after fighting on the losing side of the War of the Spanish Succession and has assumed the identity of a Sardinian gentleman serving Archduke Charles of Austria, he again encounters Busqueros.

While walking one evening with members of the archduke's household in the main square, I saw a man whose gait—now crawling, now scuttling—reminded me of Don Busqueros. I had him watched, and was told that he wore a false nose and was known as Dr. Robusti. I didn't doubt an instant that it was Busqueros, and that the wretch had slipped into the town with the intention of spying on us.
— The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 59

This time Juan has the upper hand, though, through his connection with the archduke. He has Busqueros imprisoned and arranges things so that his only means of escape is to run between two lines of soldiers, who beat him with birch switches as he races past to a boat at the dock. The last we are told of Busqueros is that he falls on hard times and loses the loss of his legs, hanging around in Madrid's Plaza del Sol "and there he carried on his singular activities by stopping passers-by and meddling if possible in their affairs."

So what should we make of Busqueros's shifting nature? It's possible author Jan Potocki was simply lazy in the characterization of Busqueros, changing him from fool to dangerous spy and back again depending on whether the narrative called more for comic relief or dramatic tension. In a variety of situations, Busqueros helps move the story forward, but I'd like to think Potocki was doing more than that.

In Day 45Velásquez the Geometer graphs the life of the Marqués de Torres Rovella as a curve along an elipse, its rise mirroring its descent. The lives of Juan Avadoro and Don Roque Busqueros seem to follow similar curves, with their rise to greatness and their descent into obscurity mirroring each other. Perhaps Potocki is reflecting that public life in eighteenth-century Europe is not a meritocracy; just because you are lauded by the nobility doesn't mean you are truly noble—a rascal may achieve the same success.

In one of my favorite pieces of literary criticism about the novel, titled "Potocki's Gothic Arabesque: Embedded Narrative and the Treatment of Boundaries in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa (1797–1815)," Ahlam Alaki ties the image of the scuttling Busqueros to life in Spain during the Inquisition. She cites historical sources describing the impact of the threat of interrogation: "The Inquisition threw Spanish society into consternation, and introduced the idea of spies being everywhere. ... The records of the Inquisition are full of instances where neighbours, friends and family members denounce each other" (Alaki, page 199).

Yet Busqueros is not an agent of the Inquisition; he is an independent entity, motivated only by his own ambition, greed, and personal grudges. Maybe Potocki is taking the Gothic bugaboo of the Inquisition and making it universal, portraying it as common behavior in Enlightenment Europe.

One of the striking things about The Manuscript Found in Saragossa is its strange atmosphere of secrets and deception, ambiguity and uncertainty. During the Enlightenment, philosophers and politicians alike tried to create systems through which logic and science would make everything clear, rational, fair, and balanced. Writers of Gothic literature rebelled against these ideals, exploring amorphous areas of superstition and the supernatural, extreme emotions and forbidden sexuality.

Bulgarian-French scholar Tzvetan Todorov puts The Manuscript Found in Saragossa in a category he calls the fantastic: literature in which the main character (and the reader as well) experiences uncertainty about whether things being experienced are real (supernatural) events or some kind of illusion, dream, or deception. Alphonse van Worden struggles to figure out whether he is encountering ghosts and magical events on his journey or if he is being tricked, and we, as readers, are uncertain about what type of story we are being told.

The character of Busqueros definitely contributes to the novel's dreamlike sense of mutability and uncertainty. What could be more nightmarish that an shadowy figure who inexplicably follows you, watching, wherever you go ... a person who might be a harmless fool, jumping out from behind bushes and wearing a fake nose, or could be a dangerous informant, eager to cause a scandal or report your loved ones to the government?

This character is introduced in Day 33.