[This post contains some small spoilers for what it is a labyrinthine, crafty and wildly complicated book.]
Orphaned, unemployed, bored, Nicoholas Urfe leaves 1950s England to teach English in Greece. The drab world of London soon gives way to a quiet, untouched paradise, the island of Phraxos.
The fictional island felt almost more real that the real Mediterranean outside my window (I read the book in Barcelona):
He handed me a mask and schnorkel. At that time they were unobtainable in Greece, and I had never used them before.
I followed the slow, pausing thresh of his feet over a petrified landscape of immense blocks of stone, among which drifted and hovered shoals of fish. There were flat fish, silvered, aldermanic; slim, darting fish; palindromic fish that peered foully out of crevices; minute poised fish of electric blue, fluttering red and black fish, slinking azure and green fish. He showed me an underwater grotto, a light-shafted nave of pale-blue shadows, where the large wrasse floated as if in a trance.
Entranced as Fowles clearly was by the nature and wildlife, like many British authors of his age, he doesn’t have a lot of respect for the local population. The Greeks are a servile population in his eyes, made up predominantly of waiters, maids and gardeners. To that extent, The Magus is not as good a depiction of life on a Greek island as the novels of Nikos Kazantzakis, such Zorba the Greek.
However, there is one Greek who dominates the action, Maurice Colchis, the Magus. Like Zorba, he is a raconteur who has lived a thousand lives. Dwelling in a remote mansion on the edge of the island, Colchis takes Urfe under his wing and starts to play a series of mind games on the young English teacher, which will challenge his view of reality.
Colchis is fascinated by sanity and insanity, why some people lose their minds whereas others can undergo terrible trauma and yet remain undaunted. To test his theories, he manipulates other people to perform for his amusement in a series of bizarre and mysterious games.
It all sounds like a 1960s/1970s TV series, like Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner, although it predates that era by some years. At its weakest, it is just as racist as TV of the time, with the sole black character being depicted as a mute servant, who uses his mere physical presence to threaten the wealthy white visitors to Colchis’ villa.
However, under the spell of the Magus nothing is quite what it seems. Urfe’s experiences bring him under the sway of a weird cult. It’s like something out of Stanley Kubrik’s Eyes Wide Shut or any of those Italian exploitation films of the 1970s, which prove that a charismatic director an get actors to do anything.
While The Magus is borderline melodrama, it is also beautifully written.
Visitors who went behind the high walls of Saint-Martin had the pleasure of seeing, across the green lawns and among the groves, shepherds and shepherdesses who danced and sang, surrounded by their white flocks. They were not always dressed in eighteenth-century clothes. Sometimes they wore costumes in the Roman and Greek styles … It was even said that there were more scandalous scenes — charming nymphs who on summer nights fled in the moonlight from strange dark shapes, half man, half goat …
It is also wise, inspired by Jungian interpretations of dreams and the subconscious with images and ideas which will stay with me for a long time.
in the end I did discover what some rich people never discover — that we all have a certain capacity for happiness and unhappiness. And that the economic hazards of life do not seriously affect it.
Apparently, there are people who read and re-read The Magus every year and it’s easy to see why. Even though Urfe is not a particularly sympathetic character, Colchis, the puppet-master is fascinating. The early part of the book with its scene-setting is gorgeously elaborate and the last third of the book is taken up with an unravelling of the mystery that has gone before. It’s as gripping as any thriller.
If I didn’t exactly believe the story or the characters, that is perhaps the point. The Magus is all about lies and truth, myth and illusion, reality and unreality. All taking place in the Aegean, and as any visitor to the region knows, of all the places you can visit in the world, there is something truly magical about Greece.