review – The manual of darkness

Enrique de Hériz, The Manual of Darkness, 390 pp. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. Hardback, £ 12.99. 978-0-297-86052-5

“A charming, somewhat leisurely read, The Manuel of Darkness features appearances by a handful of stars from the constellation of nineteenth-century magic. Heinrich Keller (Harry Kellar on stage), John Nevil Maskelyne and Harry Houdini are all, to different degrees, brought to life in a novel that divides between a well-researched account of historical developments in conjuring practice and the story of a Barcelona magician called Víctor Losa in the present day. What we are given are parallel stories: the adventures and misadventures of Peter Grouse, a pickpocket and self-taught magician, who sees magic as a purely technical challenge, are balanced against Losa’s descent into blindness and the technical challenge he in turn faces of learning to function without his sight.
It is worth persevering until one reaches the second part of this fable, which is less flashy, more intimate and subtle than the novel’s first half, with its extensive imagery and obdurate symbolism, and which builds a more coherent structure around the rehabilitation process of the newly blind man who, almost incidentally, is presented as one of the most famous magicians of the modern era. De Hériz excels in making the magician’s trade interesting: his skill lies not in the exposition of the tricks themselves but rather of their psychological circumstances and the necessary suspension of disbelief on which the art is based. His study of the psychology of magic, from the point of view of both its audience and its practitioners, is flawless, but it is the account of Losa’s rehabilitation, as he moves from frustration to a new kind of enlightenment, that really makes this novel stand out.
The Manual of Darkness resembles two largely independent novels, both looking for, and eventually finding, a point of unification. Each one has its particular rhythm and structure, its different grades of intensity, and a large number of diverse characters. Each narrative at times seems about to, but never does, topple over into a disconnected patchwork of historical scenes, accounts of the present-day magical community in Barcelona, and poetic images in which the secrets of magic are revealed to the reader. De Hériz is to be praised, as is Frank Wynne for his responsive and gripping translation, for what finally adds up to a meaningful and beautiful investigation of loneliness, something that not even magic can heal.”

published 25th november 2011, The Times Literary Supplement

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