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Torre di Venere is a bustling but faintly decaying resort village on the Tyrrhenian Sea. It shares fine white sands and high pine groves with other beachside towns along the way. By the middle of August, it is awash in humanity; during the day hordes of sunburned vacationers of all ages, both sexes, and several nationalities converge at the water’s edge. The narrator acknowledges his disappointment with these surroundings, which are no more auspicious than those of other southern Italian retreats. He and his wife are beset by redundant hotel and restaurant functionaries; a subtropical heat wave has set in. Their daughter is caught up in an unpleasant and slightly indecent incident when she adjusts her bathing suit at the seaside. For a brief time, their son is ill with what they fear may be whooping cough.

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For a diversion, the narrator and his family decide to attend an evening performance by Cipolla, a traveling conjuror and prestidigitator whose reputation has preceded him. By nine o’clock, throngs of townspeople and tourists have gathered at a cinema hall built into a ruined castle. The audience is kept waiting for some time until, with calculated abruptness, the magician appears. Cipolla appraises them with small, hard eyes and clipped lips; he flashes his ragged, uneven, sawlike teeth. His hands, which are like long yellow claws, clutch a silver-handled riding crop. As he performs, he smokes cheap cigarettes and downs neat glasses of cognac. Bantering with the audience and slashing his whip through the air to make his points, the magician induces individual spectators to perform feats that they think impossible or initially refuse indignantly.

One youth extends his tongue to the farthest limits and then retracts it, hardly knowing what he has done afterward; another young man is drawn up and convulsed in a colicky spasm, and when he returns to an upright position he is unaware of his previous plight. Cipolla produces a slip of paper and then has members of the audience supply numbers; when he has added all of them—fifteen entries, yielding a sum of nearly one million—the magician shows the spectators that he had written down precisely that figure beforehand. He also demonstrates a series of card tricks, in which without looking he takes three cards from one deck and then, on all but a few occasions, is able to show that they are the same as those members of the audience have chosen at random from another deck.

The narrator comments that the magician’s predilection is for harsh, mean-spirited challenges that subject the participants to physical and intellectual humiliation. As entertainment it is not entirely suitable for children. The magician styles himself Cavaliere, an honorific title often conferred for distinguished military service, and he wears the sash customarily given with this award. However, the...

(The entire section contains 724 words.)

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