Mario and the Magician

Thomas Mann

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Summary by Levi B. Sanchez
Mario and the Magician is a novella written by German author Thomas Mann in 1929. As in many of his fictional works, Mann borrowed material for Mario from his actual experience. A performance Mann attended while on vacation in Italy in the summer of 1926 serves as inspiration for the sinister magician Cipolla’s production in the novella. Interestingly, it was not until years later that Mann fictionalized the experience due to a comment from his daughter.[1] Erika Mann’s suggestion that the victim of a trick similar to what befalls Mario in the story might well kill the magician was enough to spur her father’s creative mind to action and the novella was born.

The novella is roughly divided into two sections. In the first section, an anonymous father recounts the troubled beginnings of his family’s vacation in Italy. From the onset, he foreshadows a horrible incident that brings an end to the trip. He observes an air of mounting nationalism during the first days of his stay, one which comes to a head when a seemingly innocent action becomes a full-on scandal. The narrator and his wife prompt their eight-year-old girl to bathe naked in the sea in order to rinse off her bathing suit. The company at the beach, comprised heavily of loyal Italians, interprets this action as not only an “offence against decency,” but also as a “gross ingratitude and an insulting breach of… [Italy’s] hospitality” [2] The ordeal ends at the police station with the issue of fine of fifty lire.

The second section recounts a memorable performance by an Italian magician. The crippled Cipolla begins with number tricks and minor hypnotic displays before unveiling more malicious acts of will-control, using his silver tongue and rider’s whip to impel select audience members to increasingly demeaning actions. At once offensive and intriguing, the dynamic and diabolical Cipolla repulses and captivates the audience until his final display of will-control.

He convinces the local waiter, Mario, to kiss him on the cheek by taking him under and masquerading as the female object of Mario’s desire. The audience’s silence in reaction to this grotesque act is only broken by the sound of two gun shots leveled from the slender hands of Mario. The story ends with the demonic magician lying crumpled on the stage, his subjects falling still, and the family finally leaving the theater. ( free ebook