Author: Lisa Goldstein
Genre: Magical Realism, Historic
Genre: Magical Realism, Historic
I mean that the past is over, and to sit and talk about what might have happened is useless. Less than useless.
(An advanced copy was provided by the publisher).
It’s been over thirty years since The Red Magician was first released, now it’s being launched as ebook for the first time. It earned critical recognition winning The National Book Award, but despite critical success it seems that the general public, especially today’s younger generation, is unaware of this book’s existence (Only 5 reviews on Amazon at the time of this writing). This is a shame, especially since it tells such an emotional and socially relevant story. By blending the genres of magical realism with history, it certainly feels like a forefather to other stories that have tried working this combination – namely Pan’s Labyrinth which was easily one of the ten best movies of the 2000’s.
Kisci is a young Jewish girl growing up in a small Hungarian village. A local Rabbi curses her family for sending their kids to a school that speaks Hebrew, but a magical traveler named Vörös manages to lift the curse. After earning Kisci’s admiration, he only sporadically visits the town, which encourages Kisci to try to learn magic and follow her dreams of traveling the world. Soon Vörös brings dire warnings to the village of the Nazi invasion which earns him the ire of the magical Rabbi that wishes to see him gone forever. As a great new threat lurks in the distance, Kisci will have use all she’s learned just to survive.
Magic becomes a part of the story during the conflict between the Rabbi and Vörös. Although the source of their magic is vaguely explained, it almost feels like the book tries to get readers to question whether or not magic is real? Suffice it to say, when there is magic, it is deeply rooted in Jewish mysticism – so yes, you can expect to see a golem. The one rule of magic that is mentioned is that a person can be destroyed by another magician if they learn that person’s name. A lot of authors struggle with blending magic with realism, but Goldstein manages to separate the two while still telling a coherent story. As powerful and menacing as magic can be in this book, it still doesn’t compare to the horrors of the Holocaust.
Emotionally the way the Holocaust enters The Red Magician foreshadows the way it would enter the movie Life is Beautiful over a decade later. Readers witness a young girl rooted deep in the Jewish traditions growing up loving her family, finding and experiencing love for the first time, and dreaming about how she wants to live her life … and then one day while she’s sitting down to dinner, men with weapons baring Nazi insignia take her whole family away to be either murdered or forced into hard labor. It’s a shocking juxtaposition, but one that afflicted many Jewish families in reality during World War II.
The concentration camp scenes never go into too much detail. It’s safe to say this book is appropriate for children, if you’re alright with them learning about some of the darkest moments in human history. If there’s one criticism I have of Holocaust stories its that a lot of them don’t show what happens to the camp survivors after they are liberated. After a survivor loses their home, all of their possessions, most, or if not all, of their family members, and after being forced into hard labor, being starved, witnessing their fellow man and woman being succumbed to horrible beatings and violent deaths, it leaves me with one question: how does someone come back from that? The Red Magician, at least tries to incorporate this part of a Holocaust experience into its story, and that was the aspect of the Holocaust portion of the book that I really respected.
Another prominent theme Goldstein explores besides the will to continue living, is the shallowness of revenge. This is done with the Rabbi whom blames the events of the Holocaust on Vörös. It’s also explored more subtly by Kisci who doesn’t seek revenge on the Nazis. The themes and issues are explored in prose that is straightforward and is expressed in the simplest of terms. The simplicity at times does cause an emotional disconnect, but the author relies on the readers’ imaginations when it comes to scenes that should be emotionally powerful.
The Red Magician is an important contribution to Holocaust literature. It should appeal to a wide audience, both young and old, and fans of genre and literary fiction. Beautiful and sad until the end, this is one story that should be read by everyone.