The Red Magician is a story about Kicsi, a young girl living in a remote village in Eastern Europe during the 1940s. Kicsi believes in magic: in the rabbi’s ability to perform miracles and to curse people, and in the wondrous tricks of an enigmatic traveler, Vörös. Kicsi yearns for adventure, but first she finds horror and trauma. There are three parts to this novel – Kicsi’s life in the village and the conflict between her traveler friend and the rabbi; the advent of the Holocaust and its impact on Kicsi and her village, including Kicsi’s transportation to and imprisonment in a concentration camp; and the return journey Vörös and Kicsi make to confront the rabbi, who has conflated his enemies into Voros.
The whole explores the journey of a young girl from childhood to adulthood, which challenges the child’s belief in magic. It’s about the effects of trauma, the destructive power of fear, grief, and hate, and the redeeming power of love and compassion. It’s about survival.
While this isn’t exactly my usual reading fare, and to say that I enjoyed it doesn’t seem to fit, I did find it compelling and evocative. Even with the description, I wasn’t expecting the Holocaust at first – not until the soldiers knocked on the door to Kicsi’s family home. The time that Kicsi spends in the concentration camp is not graphic or detailed, and it doesn’t distract from the themes of the novel, of magic and survival, but as a reader I felt the horrors that Kicsi lives through. The suspense leading up to her internment, the soldiers, the separation from her family, the train ride, made my heart beat faster, and I felt dread for Kicsi and her loved ones.
The last part of the novel felt less suspenseful but more weighty. Here, Vörös confronts Kicsi’s survivor’s guilt as well as the grief-stricken and vengeful rabbi. The rabbi, while the villain for much of the tale, is not the black half of the black-and-white picture – instead, he is a sad and fearful man who denies what he knows to be true, and then turns one of his opponents into the cause of all his losses. Because he is not evil, when Vörös gives him an opportunity to redeem himself, he is able to change. Each of the characters had their own stories to tell, their own experiences to share, and their own voices. They fit very well together, and melded well with the events to create a convincing plot.
I enjoyed the mix of historical events and magic, the role magic plays in the events, and in the characters’ survival. The tone gives the story a dreamy feel, which felt appropriate at different times for different reasons. In Kicsi’s village, it felt right because the magic seemed such a part of the community life, almost in the way of superstitions. In the concentration camp, it felt right because Kicsi at times steps outside herself, sleepwalking through much of her imprisonment.
One little thing: I am becoming more interested lately in the Jewish magic of the golem. I want to read more stories with golems in them. How do they fit into Jewish folklore? How are they similar or different to magical creatures from other cultures or religions?
Overall, this book is fascinating and well worth a read.
On my shortlist for exploring golems and other cultural folkloric magical creatures is The Golem and the Jinni. Jewish golem and Syrian jinni as main characters who tell their own story? Sign me up.
Also on my list: Redemption in Indigo, based on a Senegalese folktale. A woman gets involved with the undying ones, or djombi.
High adventure and magic à la The Arabian Nights come to life in Throne of the Crescent Moon, which has both djenn and ghuls.
*Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley