Having taken you this far, I'll warrant that you expect me to tell you a thing or two about this edition. But yet, having already pleaded illiteracy in this case, what nature of exposition would you expect me to share with you? Falsehoods and embellishments? Surely with a work boasting such a provenance as this, the truth cannot help but be stranger than any fiction I could trouble myself to fabricate. I can share with you only the impersonal and abstract observations of a distant surveyor, flavoured with what scant interpretation as may be procured at this hour. As the text covers the events of 66 distinct days and nights over the course of a door-stopping six hundred and thirty one pages, one can safely say that it defies both time and space. (weak)
Go back and forget the last two paragraphs. Poland had no need for all this language-crunching - they had all they needed. 118 years later, they decided to commit it, or at the least some portion thereof, to the silver screen. "Now this is a movie" claims one Erik Gregersen. Despite my natural tendency to perversity, I cannot find much wrong with such a summation. (Perhaps was a movie... or wait, yes, a film.) But wait. He says more. I will go on to tell you what else he says if you give me half a chance (yes I will.) "In 18th century Spain, a Spanish officer wanders into a 4-D Decameron written by Borges, designed by Gilliam and cast by Russ Meyer."
Lies. All of it. All right, much of it. The names are all wrong, but he breaks with the truth in order to give you a better sense, a better feel, than meaning. (Screw meaning!) What would it have meant to you if he'd said "written by Tadeusz Kwiatkowski and designed by Tadeusz Myszorek?"2 Nothing more than the frequency of the name "Tadeusz" among Poles, I'd be guessing. In any case, that film is not The Saragossa Manuscript. Have I been misleading you with non sequiturs and red herrings? Ha! No, but wait! Come back here! That film is instead Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie - the Saragossa Manuscript is the name of its subtitled English-language release. See now, unlike all these other men, I am making an effort not to tell any more lies to you than entirely necessary.
Fleeing from enemies in some turbulent Napoleonic conflict or another, Count Ollavedez3 takes cover in an abandoned house. There in the house is a book. Surely I need not warn you of the engrossing perils of literature - suffice it to say that it is never in any doubt that he will be reading the book.
The book is the Manuscript found in Saragossa, chronicling the adventures of a young officer - Alphonse van Worden (the grandfather of Ollavedez) as he travels through Sierra Morenae to Madrid. Between bouts of mysteriously awakening at a gallows where men are hanged upside-down (but really!), Alphonse is told stories by characters who may or may not be what they seem.
Inside the stories, characters tell stories.
Do you really want to know what happens in those stories?
If you have gotten this far, surely you are the type clever enough to figure it out for yourself.
What of the stories? It has been a long time since last I saw it, and I do not wish to inadvertently tell you lies. But this much I can tell you: There are duels. There are cuckolds. The logician-mathematician is ambushed by the Inquisition, whereupon they proceed to the Cabalist's castle. Do I need to repeat that twice? Really, if I you require more than that, you are made of stone - and I do not write for an audience of statues.
It might help to keep notes. At one point Alphonse interrupts the action for a hierarchical recap: "Frasquita told her story to Busquenos. He told it to Lopez Soarez, who in turn told it to Senor Avadoro. It’s enough to drive you crazy!" It has taken a while, but someone finally tells us something that is not a lie. This movie will drive you crazy, but it's a fierce and lively crazy, an insanity to bring home and share with your burning grandchildren.
The enemies catch up with the Count, but like him being less interesting than the book they are doomed to be subordinate to it, neglecting their soldierly duties in similarly being drawn in to its pages.
(What duties are you neglecting by being drawn in to these pages? Are my words sufficiently interesting to compel you to be captivated by the characters' engrossment? I suppose that depends on how interesting you are.)
Erik Gregersen is not the only one who likes this movie. I, for instance, like it. It was Jerry Garcia's favourite movie. Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola both enjoyed it enough to finance the restoration and distribution of it - and unlike Erik, Jerry and I, those are presumably men who really know their stuff where film is concerned! That release is three hours long - which is a long time for a movie to take to tell a single story, but this movie tells many many stories. Think of it as a self-contained film festival. The sub-plots and tangents pile and nest upon each other ultimately seven deep, which makes for an average of about 25 minutes per layer. You may not believe that you possess enough patience in you for this, but it is a truth that you do. This movie is tricky. It plays tricks on its characters. It plays tricks with itself. It will play tricks on you. Who will you play tricks on?
At the time this film was made (1965), it marked a great milestone in Polish cinema. (try not to laugh, please) Everyone who worked on or starred in this movie was either at the top of their pre-Manuscript career or would be launched by their participation in this work into Poland's A-list. Or so I'm told. Among other notables contributing it is worth mentioning that it was directed by Wojciech Has, scored by Krzystof Penderecki (an amazing early electronic soundtrack), and featured stunning black and white cinematography courtesy of Mieczyslaw Jahoda. Captain Alphonse was played by Zbigniew Cybulski, and I poke fun at others' names in footnote 2.
Around page 100 of Maxine Hong Kingston's book Tripmaster Monkey, details regarding this movie are shared at a party. If my stubborn self-reflexiveness here infuriated you, I encourage you to pursue the account as presented there. Regardless, I leave you with a related fragment:
Wittman felt showered with luck that poured from the air. He'd been given a gift; someone at a party has sought him out and told him The Saragossa Manuscript. He can't die. He can't die without seeing this movie. Life has more enjoyment to come. Yes, life is tricky and thick.
For years afterwards, Wittman kept asking after The Saragossa Manuscript. He helped start a film society that held Czech and Polish festivals, but did not find it. Nor did he meet anyone else who had seen it. It will be as if he'd hallucinated that movie, a dream he'd had when he was a younger and more stoned monkey. And Charley, who saw it four times in three nights, will not see the movie again. It will become his dream too. Some of those who heard the movie told at the fireside will think they'd seen it. All of them will remember a promise of something good among cannonballs and skulls.