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. 

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.