Mario and the Magician
is a novella by German author Thomas Mann, first published in 1929. Taking place on the narrator’s trip to Torre di Venere, Italy, the vacation turns out of control as he notices the nasty nationalistic streak the country is developing. This becomes more pronounced with the arrival of the hypnotist Cipolla, who uses his mental powers to manipulate the audience in disturbing ways as he subjugates the masses in an attempt to turn himself into an imposing figure. The novella is seen as Mann’s most political work, and it’s interpreted by most readers as a commentary on the rise of European fascism due to its pronounced themes of resistance to fascism, the importance of independent thought, and the dangers of charismatic leaders. It has been adapted multiple times, primarily for stage and opera, and has been performed around the world. It was also adapted for film in 1994, starring and directed by Klaus Maria Brandauer.Mario and the Magician
begins as the narrator and his family arrive at Torre di Venere, a busy but old and decaying resort village on the Tyrrhenian Sea. Although it has a beautiful beach, the accommodations are less than impressive, and it is currently bustling with vacationers from all around Europe. The narrator expresses his disappointment with these surroundings, having been expecting a more distinctive resort given Southern Italy’s reputation. He and his wife find the hotel and restaurant staff to be frustrating; the resort is hit with a massive heat wave; their daughter is humiliated by local boys while adjusting her bathing suit at the beach; and their young son becomes sick with what his parents worry might be whooping cough. Looking to take their minds off their problems, the family attends a performance by traveling magician and mentalist Cipolla. Cipolla’s reputation precedes him, and by the time of his performance the cinema hall is packed with fans. They wait anxiously until Cipolla arrives abruptly. He stares at the audience, his ragged teeth and long claw-like hands making the narrator ill at ease. He smokes and drinks cognac while performing, bantering with the audience and punctuating his speech with cracks of a whip. He frequently pulls audience members on stage to perform feats seemingly either impossible or shocking.
The feats become more disturbing as the night goes on. One boy extends his tongue beyond what should be possible, while another man floats and convulses in a hysterical spasm. When he sits up again he has forgotten about what he just experienced. Next, he produces a piece of paper and has the audience provide him with numbers. When he adds them, he comes up with the number of one million. Then he reveals that he had written that number in advance. He proceeds to show off a series of card tricks, in which he takes three cards without looking from his deck, and then is able to show that they are the same cards that members of the audience have chosen at random from another deck. The narrator observes that the magician likes harsh, mean-spirited tricks that pit the audience against him and subject them to physical and mental humiliation. The children watching are disturbed, and the narrator notices that the magician likes to style himself as Cavaliere, a title usually given to military officials. Wearing the attire of a military commander despite never having served due to a hunch in his back, he seems to have pulled much of the audience into a trance.
The show goes into a long, confusing intermission of at least twenty minutes, and then Cipolla returns to play more tricks on the audience. He begins manipulating their minds, making one woman unable to hear her husband’s voice, and makes a group of young men dance endlessly until he tells them to stop. Finally, he calls on Mario, a young man of twenty. Mario is a humble man who works at a cafe at the resort, where he brings snacks to the guests. Cipolla asks Mario about his work and shows an uncanny knowledge of the women Mario has been close to. The magician reveals that he knows about the young man’s true love, a young woman named Silvestra, and asks him probing questions about her. He then hypnotizes Mario and begins speaking in Silvestra’s voice. He asks Mario to kiss him, which Mario does, and then drops the spell. Mario recoils in horror. The audience is stunned, and they aren’t aware anything is wrong. Then, there’s two loud bangs. Mario has shot Cipolla with a homemade revolver and quickly runs away from the dying magician before he can be caught. The narrator observes that there’s a distinct sense of shock and horror in the hall, but he also observes a sense of relief as the twisted magician’s hold over the audience is broken at last.
Thomas Mann was a German author, social critic, and philanthropist who won the 1929 Nobel Prize for Literature. Known for his intellectual, philosophical, and religious influences, he was a strong anti-Nazi activist who fled Germany when Hitler came to power.