Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) The Red Magician is the tale of Kicsi, a young girl in a backwoods Eastern European village in the early 1940’s, a hamlet so isolated that the villagers know nothing of the brewing war – have no hint of the future save for ominous dreams. Into this village comes Voros, a redheaded wanderer, a juggler and magician, to disrupt their lives and antagonize the local rabbi…with whom he must fight a cabbalistic duel to which Kicsi is a secret witness. Then the Nazis arrive, and the world changes. Kicsi is first imprisoned, then must journey with Voros back to what remains of her village, for a climactic battle between the old world and the new. The Red Magician is a notable work of Holocaust literature, a distinguished work of fiction, and a marvelously entertaining fantasy – as Philip K. Dick remarked upon its first publication, “nourishment for the mind and the soul.”
Thoughts: I’ve been taking greater note of Open Road Media these days, since their reputation for rereleasing older books as ebooks is worth paying attention to on that merit alone. But thanks to the rerelease business model, they get to pick through books that have stood the test of time and have proven themselves just as good and relevent now as when they were first published, and so that means they’re a company that will hard far more hits than misses.
Lisa Goldstein’s The Red Magician is representative of the quality I’ve come to expect in their books as I read more of them. While more a novella than a novel (it’s around 140 pages), The Red Magician is an excellent read and doesn’t suffer from being so short the way some novellas do. I finished this book not wishing it could have been expanded into something longer and more detailed, but instead appreciating just how much could be crammed into so short a space without losing anything in the process.
The story focuses on Kicsi (and yes, there is a pronunciation guide before the story starts, so you’re not mentally mispronouncing names like Voros, Kicsi, and Aladar through the whole thing), a young girl in an eastern European village who encounters Voros, a red-haired magician who intrigues her more than others think is healthy. Especially the rabbi who tends to the spiritual needs of the village. They try to discourage Kicsi from being around Voros, but events conspire to keep bringing them back into contact, and secrets of Voros’s magic are revealed. But the realities of the war and Nazis take hold and the world horrifically expands beyond Kicsi’s small village, and what follows is terrifying and touching all at once.
Early on, I expected that the rivalry between Voros and the rabbi was going to devolve into a metaphor for God and Satan fighting, and you know, I would have been okay with that, especially since it seemed like it was shaping up to be the religious leader who was portrayed as the selfish manipulator and the unappreciated travelling stranger who was, oh, say, creating a creature from clay and naming it Adom. I have a special love for stories involving religion where the primary deity incarnates and people actively oppose them because they’re not following tradition. It’s a persona taste, admittedly, but I love to read those stories. But that isn’t what happened here. Both Voros and the rabbi were stunningly human, neither one the embodiment of the divine or the diabolical. Just people. And it brought the story closer to home, making magic something that people could do instead of limiting it to the supernatural or the religious. It was confined, and yet was so earthly as to be almost mundane.
As mundane as the ability to create detailed illusions and animate clay can ever be, anyway.
The section of the book that has Kicsi in a concentration camp is chilling, and is a reminder of the horrors experienced by people there. For just about every single one of us, such things are the realm of stories and textbooks, and those are the only way we have to connect to that part of the past. It’s easy sometimes to think that it’s something that only ever existed within books. As such, I’m grateful to find books that treat the issue with respect, not just removed talking about politics and human experimentation but the day-to-day lives of those who lived through the terror. It’s hard to not feel for Kicsi here, and it’s extremely difficult not to feel your own heart sink at her subsequent depression and survivor’s guilt.
Goldstein takes the wide-reaching and the large-scale and brings them down to wonderfully human levels. Despite being a story about magic during World War 2, this isn’t a wish-fulfillment story about spells stopping Hitler, or good triumphing simply because good should triumph. It’s a story about life, the good and the bad. It’s a story about discovery and survival and recovery. Originally published in 1982, 2 years before I was even born, time has not spoiled this story, and it’s just as good to read now as it was then. Do yourself a favour and spend an afternoon delving into The Red Magician. It’s an excellent story, with fantastic commentary on humanity and religion, and one that I know with certainty that I’m going to read at least once more.
(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)