Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Writing science fiction and fantasy which uses the Holocaust as its central event is difficult. The author runs the risk of portraying the horrors of the Nazi's attempted genocide either too graphically or not horrible enough. Some recent successes have included Jane Yolen's Briar Rose and Art Speigelman's Maus. Lisa Goldstein's The Red Magician is another book which manages to walk this fine line.
Shortly after the village rabbi placed a curse of Kicsi's family, a stranger appeared in her small Hungarian village. Going by the name Vörös, the stranger proved to be a magician whose powers equalled or surpassed the village rabbi's, who was an accomplished kabbalist himself. Kicsi saw in Vörös a window into the world of the foreign and exotic.
Vörös is really a Cassandra: a magician who can see the future, and the future Vörös sees is the upcoming Holocaust. His attempts to warn the rabbi and the villagers of their impending doom is greeted with fear and threats. The rabbi, whose daughter's wedding was interrupted by Vörös's vision, threatens to kill the wandering magician if he ever sets foot in the village again.
Of course, closing out the world has never been a solution for problems, and eventually the villagers are exiled to the concentration camps of the Nazis. The sequence is handled well, with many of the horrors of the camps hinted at or alluded to, but the only horror really shown is the destruction of the sense of family and community which existed prior to the war.
The meat of the novel addresses itself to the responsibilities an individual has to the community as a whole. Vörös's, Kicsi's and the rabbi's responses to their foreknowledge of the German invasion as well as the invasion themselves are very different. What becomes even more important is the manner in which each character addresses those reponsibilities and the self-imposed penance each one carries out when they fail to do their duty as they see it.
At times, The Red Magician has the feel of being a juvenile novel. This is caused, at least in part, by the fact that for Kicsi, the main character, it is a coming of age novel. However, many of the themes discussed are mature themes, although they are discussed in such ways that both children and adults can learn from what Goldstein is saying. The Red Magician is Goldstein's first novel, but is written with a general clarity which allows the story of Kicsi's maturation to be told in a straightforward way without obscuring the ideas of responsibility, family, and otherness which are used throughout the novel.
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