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Sorcerer's Apprentice

Tahir Shah

Arcade Books / Time Warner

US Trade Paperback

ISBN 1-55970-626-0

Publication Date: 05-01-2002

336 Pages; $13.95

Date Reviewed: 08-10-02

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002



Non-Fiction, Horror

07-02-02, 07-25-02

The westerner who is taught the intricacies of a non-western religion, and who somehow achieves enlightenment, is a familiar character to the fortean -- and even the non-fortean reader. Carlos Casteneda had free reign of the bestseller lists back in his day with his tales of Don Juan. More recently, Timothy J. Knab found himself in the company of less genial sorcerers in 'A War of Witches'. Tahir Shah was born into Afghan nobility in 1966 and grew up in England. In 'Sorcerer's Apprentice' he undertakes a similar tutelage with an Indian conjurer, then travels through India searching for other "godmen", with felicitous results for any reader. 'Sorcerer's Apprentice' benefits from excellent, mannered, prose, an unabashed skepticism, genuine open-mindedness and the author's seemingly limitless naiveté. Never has a gullible guy been so genial about the ease with which he is deceived, robbed, tricked and otherwise hoodwinked. Shah manages to entertain the reader with a literary sleight-of-hand that is every bit as entertaining as real magic.

This is a non-fiction memoir that begins in 1977, when the author is eleven years old. The guardian of an ancestor's tomb in India appears at the Shah estate, fearing for young Tahir's life. He's had a vision. Hafiz Jan proceeds to teach Tahir sleight-of-hand magic and other more dangerous tricks, breaking out the dangerous chemicals and powders we all loved as kids with chemistry sets. This portion of the book is very reminiscent of the beginning of 'Carter Beats the Devil', as a pre-adolescent fulfills the fantasy of learning stage magic. Shah writes evocatively of his youth, but with a disarming straightforward honesty that keeps the book miles away from being mawkish. Hafiz, though he's supposed to be watching Tahir's safety is teaching the young man some rather dangerous tricks. After a short tutelage, Hafiz's vision is realized, in a sense. He departs, and leaves young Shah wanting more magic in his life.

Twenty years later, Shah undertakes a journey to meeting Hafiz, who promptly sends Shah to Hafiz's tutor, Hakim Feroze. It's not an easy journey. Shah is robbed on the way by the first of many indigenous con men. Once he arrives, and is taken under Feroze's wing, things don't seem to improve much. He's made to endure hardships that hardly seem relevant, and forced to learn seemingly everything but magic. Eventually the lessons take the form that Shah has hoped -- sort of. As the last step in his education, Feroze sends him on a journey through India to experience and report back on the "godmen" he encounters. Accompanied by a twelve-year old translator that he rightfully calls a "one man crime wave", he journeys from Calcutta to Bombay, encountering every manner of appalling behavior known to man.

Shah's prose is excellent, and his approach is hugely entertaining. He's very gullible and willing, wanting to find an authentic "godman" that that he might send his report back to Feroze. Simultaneously, he knows how all the supposed magic is done. But this is utterly irrelevant to the natives of India, who live in a world steeped in superstition. It doesn't matter that Shah knows "how it's done". The audience experiences a supernatural event, whether it's firewalking, sword swallowing or any one of a number of more elaborate illusions. There is as much conning as there is conjuring, with Shah getting relieved of his money so often one wonder how he managed the trip. Shah paints a picture that is often hilarious, often terrorizing, and often both.

The real achievement of 'Sorcerer's Apprentice' is not in the travelogue, or in the examination of a culture steeped in superstition, but in the prose, the story and the characters. Shah's writing is superb. His prose strikes the perfect balance between skepticism and gullibility. His story is focused and keeps forward momentum. His characters are fascinating. Hafiz Jan is a Pashtun "Giant bear of a man", whose tutelage is what every boy hopes for -- seemingly dangerous, ultimately safe. Feroze is appropriately ferocious. He forces Shah to go beyond the boundaries of the English estate-raised gentleman, and prepares him to endure the hardships he encounters on his journey with the twelve-year-old "Trickster". The Trickster is a true coyote character, and his antics are the source of a lot of humor. His con games are clever, but not too clever. In one town, he decides to create a sun-block tonic for the mostly bald tourists. Unfortunately, he puts too much sugar in the solution and when the heads of his customers are covered with black horseflies, the two are forced to flee. 'Sorcerer's Apprentice' is positively bursting with such anecdotes. From the eerie skeleton-scroungers at a Calcutta cemetery to the assortment of "godmen" Shah meets on the road, Shah keeps the reader highly entertained. Only in retrospect will the readers realize that they too have received a magical education.