My uncle Pierre had a lot of books, which are now mine. He had a knack for picking books, but I tend to read them at random. Some of them are good, some of them are trash, but some of them are great. The Red Magician by Lisa Goldstein is one of the latter. Recognized with a National Book Award for Original Paperback, it tells the story of Kicsi, a girl from a small Jewish village in eastern Europe, and her encounters with the traveler Vörös as the second World War encroaches on her life.
Kicsi’s story begins in her small village. Her father runs a printing press, and it’s said that their rabbi has just cursed her school for teaching Hebrew like it’s Yiddish. Life is strange. It gets stranger still when she meets the wanderer Vörös, a red-haired magician, entertainer, and world traveler who comes with stories of America and dark visions of a toothless man. He and the rabbi are immediately at odds, culminating in a duel in the forest. Vörös swears he’s trying to protect the village, while the rabbi insists that he’s protecting the village from Vörös. Kicsi can do little more than watch and learn, discovering the reality of magic with her own eyes. The toothless man comes long after Vörös has gone, one of the Nazis who occupies the village, and Kicsi and her family are sent to a camp. She survives, but only barely, hearing stories of the red-haired man who saves people, until Vörös finds her. Pursued by the power of the rabbi, they rush back to her village for a final confrontation, though it doesn’t turn out quite like anyone expected.
It’s another book about wizards, but in the Red Magician, the story stays focused on Kicsi’s perspective. Her journey is the one that matters, through her first kiss to having her head shaved in the camp after stealing a potato. Kicsi is the girl who loses. She loses Vörös, and becomes out of place in a village she knew. She loses her family and friends, some to the camp guards and some to the gas chambers. She loses herself, bearing the terrible guilt of surviving when so many didn’t. But she’s also the girl who grows, curious and bold, who speaks when others would make her stay quiet. When they face the rabbi in the end, she wins out by reclaiming herself and helping him find his way, remembering that for all the rabbi’s powerful magics, at his core he’s a father gone mad with grief. No matter how many people Vörös saves, Kicsi is the heroine of the tale.
The Red Magician introduces magical realism into eastern Europe in 1938. There are illusions and visions, golems and the restless dead. It’s magic at its most elementary level, it protects and kills, shows and binds. It’s the magic of words and images and names, and its practitioners comes to it with a deep respect and a deep fear. Vörös, the wanderer wizard, carries various fetishes to lend him power, objects of significance that he’s acquired around the world. The rabbi’s power comes from home, however. It’s rooted in his faith, his synagogue, and his people. Throughout the story, their conflict isn’t just two men, but two worldviews clashing.
A man with two umlauts in his name, Vörös was born Gershon, Hebrew for expelled, exiled, or wanderer. He’s learned magic all over the world, but his role in the story is less as Kicsi’s mentor or teacher, and more as her spirit guide. He’s drawn to her first for kindness and protection, and later tries to keep her safe and away from magic. When she’s bound and determined not to listen, he tries to guide her. When he finds her dying in the camp, he saves her only to find that she’s lost herself. In some ways, I found him to be sort of a John Constantine figure, riding the synchronicity highway and trying to squeeze some good out of his magic when faced with a monolithic evil like the concentration camps of WWII. Vörös may guide Kicsi, but she doesn’t live in his shadow, the Arthur to his Merlin. When she finally reaches the rabbi, the rabbi remarks “She is very wise. Have you been teaching her?” Vörös replies “No, she has come into her wisdom by herself.”
The Red Magician grabs your heart and your imagination, plays the desire to travel against the safety of home, and calls to the fear of loss and the burden of guilt in everyone. It is a winner. On the completely arbitrary scale, it gets an eight. It bears mentioning that the author, Lisa Goldstein, has an awesome website with an entire page dedicated to her dog, Spark. She also has a Livejournal that she still updates with book reviews, because she’s internet old school like that. Given those things, the eight goes to a nine. If you’re wandering in an old bookstore and are looking for a book with quiet magic that will make you curious, then sad, then happy, you’re looking for the Red Magician.