My Summer Reading: The Manual of Darkness by Enrique de Hériz

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Translated by Frank Wynne

Reviewed by Annabel

Members of the Shiny reviewing team share previously published books from their shelves that they’re reading this summer…

This book is subtitled ‘A Novel Steeped in the History of Magic’ and it certainly is that. I love a book about a magician and have previously reviewed The Disappearance Boy by Neil Bartlett and Edith & Oliver by Michèle Forbes for Shiny.

The Manual of Darkness is a contemporary story set in Barcelona, and begins at the end of Victor Losa’s career as a magician. He is climbing the steps to the workshop of his teacher and mentor Mario Gálvan, who is holding a reception for his star pupil who has been crowned the ‘World’s Best Magician’ the previous week…

As he is about to climb the last remaining steps, Victor looks up and gets the fright of his life: the green door has vanished. It is still there, of course, it has to be; but he cannot see it. Instead he sees a milky stain, a whitish halo as though he were looking at the world through a veil. He takes off his glasses, rubs, his eyes. When he looks again, the door is there in front of him, scruffy, the paint peeling, just as it always has been. Things disappear and reappear in unexpected ways. No one knows that more than he does.

This is the first hint of the terror that is to come for Victor, as he is diagnosed with a rare degenerative condition of his optic nerve, with a mere 0.2% hope of retaining any vision at all. The novel then continues in a dual time-frame.

The first is set in the present, as Victor becomes completely blind and being a proud man turns in on himself, until he is forced to learn how to cope when Gálvan contacts a charity for the blind on his behalf. This results in visits from Alicia, a newly qualified therapist who realises that getting Victor to respond will be a challenge. Yet she does ignite a spark in Victor that doesn’t always result in what Alicia expects! Victor is also helped by a Romanian prostitute called Irina – at first it’s purely business, but Irina grows to have a soft spot for her blind client.

The other strand follows Victor’s life from his early teens and his first lesson with Mario Gálvan, who teaches him all about the history of magic and the great Victorian practitioners, alongside all the basics of its art. Gálvan is a collector of magician’s cabinets and props, and always planned to open up a museum eventually.

Back to Victor’s first lesson: Mario obviously sees something in the boy, for as Victor is leaving, he overhears Mario muttering to himself:

‘That little wretch is going to be one hell of a magician.’

Those overheard words are something that Victor will try to live up to for the rest of his life weighing more heavily as the years go on, and Mario will come to be the father figure that Victor had lost. His father, an entomologist and myrmecologist (expert on ants) had died when he inhaled the vapour from the pure nicotine liquid used for killing subjects for microscopic examination – was it an accident? The shadow of Victor’s father hangs heavy over his life for Victor had looked up to him so much and he tries to keep the ant farm they built together going, (there is probably more semiology in the ants than I was able to glean).

Victor may be the main narrator, and we certainly experience a roller-coaster ride with him, but we also get into the minds of Alicia in particular, and Mario in passing, who provide good contrast to Victor’s increasing confidence and melancholy in the two timelines respectively.

The Manual of Darkness is definitely one of the best, if not the best, novels about magicians that I’ve read. (Somehow, I haven’t read the highly though-of Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gould yet though). While elements of the story may be satisfyingly predictable, many more aren’t, which kept me greedily reading on, and, as always, Frank Wynne’s translation is compelling too.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny editors, and loves to try and work out how magicians do their thing!

Enrique de Hériz, The Manual of Darkness (W&N 2011) 978-0753828168, 400pp., hardback, 2011.

BUY at Blackwell’s in paperback via our affiiliate link (free UK P&P)