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César Aira: El mago [The Magician]

The real name of our eponymous magician is Pedro María Gregorini but we know him by his stage name Hans Chans. He is an Argentinian professional magician. However, unlike other magicians, he is a real magician. He does not rely on tricks, sleight of hand, mirrors, distraction techniques and so on. He really can do magic. Thus, when he pulls a rabbit out of the hat, there was no hidden rabbit or compartment. He really did conjure up the rabbit.

He has had this talent all his life but feels he cannot really exploit it. If he were, for example, to create money for himself, people might question where he got it from. He could create gold out of nothing but where would he sell it without arousing suspicion? As for creating a big house for himself, where would he put it? Someone else owns the land. If he won the lottery by magic, there would be suspicions that he had somehow cheated.

Accordingly, he has decided the best way to hide his ability is among professional magicians and make a good and honest living doing tricks. He has not a clue how to do magic tricks but does not need to. What he has done is to copy the tricks other magicians do. That works well, except that it makes him a good magician but not a great one. He lacks imagination and cannot think up a a really great trick that would not arouse suspicion or frighten off his audience.

However, he has now decided that showing off his skills before his peers is the way forward. He has recently discovered that they meet regularly and plans to attend the next meeting in Panama, where he will present his new trick, which will make his reputation. It doesn’t go well. Panama is hot and unpleasant. He is one of those people who does not know what to do when left to himself, which, for some of the time, he is. He knows that he has the advantage over the other magicians as they have to prepare a new trick while he does not. The down side is that he cannot think what new trick to perform.

He is met by Pedro Susano, a young Panamanian but when he gets to the hotel he feels lost. He attends a dinner where he gets drunk and behaves badly. As a result, though he is tired, he finds difficulty in sleeping. Next morning he decides to wander round the city but has no idea where to go or what to do. Fortunately for him, Pedro is hanging around and offers to guide him around. It does not go particularly well.

Both he and Pedro finally admit to one another that they are not good at small talk and struggle to converse. Pedro tells him that he has always been a hero of his, ever since, as a child, when his family get a television (won in a lottery) the first programme he had seen was a children’s programme in which our magician appeared, doing tricks. Our hero had almost forgotten about this programme, for which he was barely paid, which was short-lived and not, in his view, successful. He is very surprised that it was shown in Panama. However, this admiration, on Pedro’s part, for our hero leads to what our hero thinks is Pedro coming on to him sexually.

At his request Pedro does take him to see the Panama Canal or, rather, he does not. He shows what he later tells our hero is known as le petit canal (the French term, is used in the Spanish) as this was merely the trial canal built by Ferdinand de Lesseps, before the French abandoned the idea of building a Panama canal. It is now a swimming pool.

Back at the hotel, the magic seems to take over and he is unable to control it, as a series of strange events occur in his room. This makes him more depressed about both his immediate and longer-term future.

That evening our hero is still struggling to find out the programme. No-one at the hotel seems to know anything about it. By accident, he does find the room where the others are but now cannot get hold of any detailed programme of events, so he does not know when he is meant to perform, or, indeed, what else is happening and when. Various people approach him, to his surprise, and want to make an appointment with him but he cannot do so as he does not know what time he has available.

However, this is Aira and we can be sure of one thing, to expect the unexpected. In this case, our hero finds a solution to all of his problems and in a quite unexpected way, though using his magic.

This is an unusual book, even by Aira’s standards. With the magic and the congress, we get a talking toothbrush and a comb that is writing a novel, a Chinese actress who looks like Mao and disguised as Emperor Tang and the unexpected appearance of three old men in smoking jackets playing boleros. But we also get a man with skills that most of us would highly welcome but which make him depressed and unsure of himself and unsure of how he can live a comfortable easy life. Also, which is unusual for Aira, it has a fairly straightforward, happy, albeit unpredictable ending. I do not think that this is one of his best but, as always, it leaves you thinking.

Publishing history

First published by Mondadori in 2002
No English translation
First published in French as Le magicien by Christian Bourgois in 2006
Translated by Michel Lafon
First published in Italian as Il Mago by Feltrinelli in 2006
Translated by Michela Finassi Parolo