The Manual of Darkness by Enrique de Hériz
Translated by Frank Wynne
I’ll be writing this book up more fully for Shiny’s ‘My Summer Reading’ slot, in which reviewers highlight an older book they’ve been reading, but I’ll write about it in short here as it’s just still Spanish Lit Month as hosted by Stu each July.
This book is subtitled ‘A Novel Steeped in the History of Magic’ and it certainly is that. You know I love a book about magicians. (I can feel a collection post coming on at that very thought!). It’s 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 ended up being crowned ‘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 goes on to lose his sight completely, being diagnosed with a rare degenerative condition of his optic nerve. The novel then continues in a dual time-frame – The first is in n the present, as Victor becomes blind and learns to cope thanks to the ministrations of a Romanian prostitute, Irina, and Alicia, a therapist for the newly blind who teaches him how to survive in his strange new world and find its magic anew. The other 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. After his first lesson, Mario obviously sees something in Victor, and 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 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 Manual of Darkness is definitely one of the best, if not the best, novels about magicians that I’ve read (but I haven’t read the highly though-of Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gould yet). I bought my copy after reading Stu’s review (here) back in 2011 – and I’m so glad I was spurred on to pull it from my shelves. 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. While elements of the story may be satisfyingly predictable, many many more aren’t, which kept me greedily reading on, and, as always, Frank Wynne’s translation is compelling too. (10/10)
Bird Summons by Leila Aboulela
Aboulela was born in Egypt, grew up in Sudan, and now lives in Scotland. This is the first book I’ve read by her, but her previous novels have been Orange Prize longlisted and she won the Scottish Book Prize for her 2011 novel Lyrics Alley which is set in Sudan. Her 6th novel stays in her adopted home of Scotland, and features three Muslim women on a road trip and spiritual quest to the Scottish Highlands – certainly an intriguing premise.
Salma, Moni and Iman are three very different women, but all are part of the Arabic Speaking Muslim Women’s Group in their city. It was Salma who originally proposed a trip to visit Lady Evelyn Cobbold’s grave on a Highland mountainside. Lady Evelyn, who really existed, was born in the Victorian era and she was the first British woman to make the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1933. She had grown up in North Africa, looked after by Muslim nannies, and formally converted to Islam after meeting the Pope! Keen to learn more about the history of Islam in Britain, Salma initially recruits a coach full, but gradually all but Moni and Iman drop out. All three women could do with a break.
Salma was a doctor, was being the operative word. She had been going to marry Amir, but her parents disapproved of the match. She married David, a convert instead, and moved to Scotland with him, where she discovered her qualifications weren’t accepted. Motherhood put paid to requalifying, so she prides herself at being good at the job she could qualify for at the hospital – a massage therapist – one step down from a physio. She’s feeling unfulfilled though, ever since Amir got back in touch, reawakening a flame that was never really extinguished in her heart. But she does love David, flirting by text isn’t really being unfaithful – is it?
Moni is married to Murtada. They have a son, Adam, who suffers from bad cerebral palsy and Moni gave up her career in banking to look after him. Murtada is not a hands-on father – in fact he’s currently working in Saudi Arabia, and is trying to persuade Moni to go out there. She knows that Adam would suffer; in Scotland, they get help. She believes this would be different in Saudi Arabia where Adam would be seen as someone to be hidden. Moni has devoted her life to Adam, Murtada being pushed into a permanent second place. Being persuaded by Salma to put Adam into respite care for a week is a big step for her.
Iman is still in her twenties and is into her third marriage after being widowed then divorced. She is very beautiful and has done nothing with her life so far, being kept on pedestals. She is chafing at the bit for freedom, from the hijab, from everything – but uses Salma for protection.
Three very different women, with different needs, states of minds, and spiritual crises which will all come to the fore on their trip. They’ve not even got far in the car, before Iman gets a text from her husband, Ibrahim, who is desperate to see her for some reason. He will catch up with them at a service station – where he promptly dumps Iman – his car was full of her things! The trip has got off to a shaky start. They get to the cottage they’ve rented in the grounds of a converted monastery, and the three women immediately settle into their usual, comfortable roles. Salma is the cheerleader, Moni is the cook, and Iman does nothing much except dress up in fancy dress costumes she finds in the wardrobe in her bedroom.
It is these costumes that summon the Hoopoe, the only bird to be mentioned in the Qur’an and a bird appearing in Persian and other mythologies. The Hoopoe acts as a spiritual guide and teacher for Iman, telling her moral fairytales with each costume change that will help her to find her own path through her life. Similarly, Salma and Moni will each experience their own spiritual dramas, Salma running and getting mired in the forest trying to get to an out of reach Amir, and Moni as surrogate mother to a non-speaking child whom she feeds and feeds.
I loved Aboulela’s characterisation of the three women, they are realised in exquisite detail, and although they are all different, they have much in common too. They bicker and sulk, go to their rooms, go in search of a mobile signal. Although Salma tries to get them prepared for the trek up the mountain to the grave, Moni in particular, the most unfit, is very resistant to the hiking practice Salma proposes.
As the week goes on, the air gets more intense, and after they discover that the route they had planned will be closed due to deer shoots on the estate, you might think giving up on the quest was the best thing to do. The Hoopoe had told Iman that only one of them would reach the grave, who will it be? Will the friendship between them survive? What decisions will they make?
Bird Summons was a rather different kind of quest novel, very enjoyable indeed and an ideal summer read. (9/10)