Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Stage magic consists of improbable feats for which other practitioners may find explanations. The extraordinary quality of this story is the manner in which the author recounts the stages by which individual spectators, much of the audience, and eventually the narrator himself seem to fall under the magician’s spell. Lengthy descriptive passages preface each of Cipolla’s challenges; increasingly the narrator refers to more abstract problems of volition and self-control. The atmosphere is conveyed by repeated references to the audience’s reactions, from disbelief to laughter to applause, and ultimately to horror. The oral sparring that precedes each test of will is reproduced at length: Peculiar features of the magician’s speech, the use of quaint south Italian dialect among the audience, and Cipolla’s jibes at slow and unresponsive spectators highlight the dialectical tension that develops more and more. Palpable periods of silence, when the audience is breathlessly enthralled by the magician’s performance, are interspersed with descriptions of the magician’s piercing hypnotic eyes and the rhythmic crackle of his whip through the air to ensure obedience. Eventually the narrator himself can only present his impressions; at some points he loses track of the precise sequence of events as he becomes transfixed by the trial of wills on the stage.

Vague foreboding is communicated by a number of details in the story, from the beaches swarming with tourists and the musty, moldering castle, to the weary, jaundiced, yet preternaturally alert features of the magician. The audience’s susceptibility to mesmerism and conjuring tricks is underscored by the author’s evocation of character, from callow youths and simple, weatherbeaten fishermen to stern, upright soldiers, all of whom fall under Cipolla’s spell. Mario, seemingly the most docile and obedient, is sketched in features that hint as well at the ultimate inviolability of his human dignity.