Thursday, 20 November 2014

'Mario und der Zauberer' ('Mario and the Magician') by Thomas Mann (Review)

Today's German Literature Month post is a further diversion from my original plans, a book I rediscovered while browsing the shelves.  A while back, I reviewed Thomas Mann's Tonio Kröger (a story I've read many a time), and I meant to get around to reading the other story included in the book.  Fast forward three years (!), and it's time to rectify that oversight ;)

Mario und der Zauberer is a later piece, dating from 1930, and it's another excellent story.  The narrator and his family are on holiday on the Italian coast, and initially this is a very light-hearted affair.  Mann (or his alter-ego) relates a story of holiday mishaps and cultural misunderstandings in the sun, the kind of things that have happened to us all at some point.

One evening, later in the holiday, the family decides to attend a show given by a magician.  However, what starts as a bit of fun turns more serious when the star turn arrives on stage; the magician is not quite what they thought he was.  Little do the narrator and his family know that they are about to bear witness to an explosive evening...

Mario und der Zauberer is a fascinating story, a two-part tale by a writer in complete command of his art.  The first part is laconic, laid-back, a happy holiday in the sun, enriched by the humour of Germans abroad.  Shortly after the family's arrival, they are forced to change their accommodation when their daughter's annoying cough frightens the rich neighbours at the hotel:
"Das Wesen dieser Krankheit ist wenig geklärt, dem Aberglauben hier mancher Spielraum gelassen, und so haben wir es unserer eleganten Nachbarin nie verargt, daß sie der weit verbreiteten Meining anhing, der Keuch husten sei akustich ansteckend, und einfach für ihre Kleinen das schlechte Beispiel fürchtete."
p.77 (Fischer Verlag, 2011)

"The nature of this illness is still rather unclear, leaving superstition ample room to play, and thus we never held it against our elegant neighbour that she clung to the wide-spread opinion that whooping cough is acoustically contagious, and that she merely feared her little one would follow this poor example." *** (my translation)
Later, there's more cultural confusion when the daughter runs naked for all of ten seconds on the beach causing uproar amongst the locals.  I'm afraid this isn't Lübeck any more...

It's a wonderfully entertaining, elegant narrative; however, slowly, but surely, the mood begins to darken.  A gradual change in the weather heralds a shift in tone, and it's at this point that the news of the forthcoming entertainment starts to spread.  As the storms close in, enter Cipolla the magician, a hypnotist who calls himself magician to get around laws banning this kind of entertainment.

On the night of the performance, Mann builds up the tension by dragging out the long wait for the main act (the poor punctual Germans fail to realise what the Italians think about starting on time...).  What ensues is dark and grotesque, a complete train wreck, as the 'magician' manipulates his audience.  At this point, you may well be wondering who the titular Mario is, and that's no secret - he's a local waiter, a man the family sees every day.
Why is he in the title?  Well, to find that out, you'll just have to read the book...

The story is actually based on an event Mann and his family witnessed while on holiday, with a dramatised ending, of course.  However, it's rather difficult not to read more into it.  In 1930, Italy was already under Mussolini's sway, and Germany was just a few years away from the start of the Hitler era.  The magician, with his strange appearance and brusque manner, is an obvious allegory for fascism, an unpleasant character with a talent for taking away people's free will.

The audience go along with the show, applauding wildly, but the narrator is simply stunned, regretting his decision not to break the holiday off sooner:
"Soll man 'abreisen', wenn das Leben sich ein bißchen unheimlich, nicht ganz geheuer oder etwas peinlich und kränkend anläßt?  Nein doch, man soll bleiben, soll sich das ansehen und sich dem aussetzen, gerade dabei gibt es vielleicht etwas zu lernen." (p.85)

"Should you 'up sticks' whenever life begins to get a little strange, not quite right or somewhat embarrassing and offensive?  Of course not, you have to stay, you have to keep watching and stick it out, in this way you might learn something." ***
This is the narrator as horrified onlooker (the presence of his children only makes it worse) among a pan-European (allegorical...) audience of holidaymakers.  It's not a stretch to see it as foreshadowing impending political disaster...

Mario und der Zauberer is an excellent story that works on multiple levels.  Like the magician, Mann has the ability to draw the reader in and keep them enthralled, even as the events make them want to look away.  A clever story, it's one which leaves a strong impression long after you've finished reading it - definitely a worthy inclusion in my GLM reading :)

There is a translation out there, by H.T. Lowe Porter, in a collection of stories entitled Mario and the Magician (Vintage Books).