“Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by Tahir Shah

This book is a story of initiation into the secrets and mysteries of magic. It is a fable, written in autobiographical form. The author-hero finds himself, like Alice down the rabbit hole or Dorothy in Oz, in a strange, wonderful and at times dangerous world. He must somehow navigate this new territory and, with the help of some colorful companions, find his way home.

The story begins when Tahir Shah is a young boy, growing up in England. Into his life steps a character straight out of Harry Potter: a rough, bristle-bearded giant of a man with the courage of a tiger and the heart of a teddy bear. This outlandish figure declares himself to be the sworn guardian of the boy-hero’s great-grandfather’s tomb in Burhana, India. (A photograph of the tomb is included in the book.) He has abandoned his post at the ancestral tomb because of a premonition that the boy is in great danger. The giant insists that he is the only one who can prevent this terrible prophesy from coming to pass.

It happens that the giant was once the apprentice of a powerful wizard named Feroze, perhaps the greatest stage magician and most fearsome shaman-sorcerer in all of India. If not for his sworn role as guardian of the tomb, the giant might have become a wizard, a godman, like his teacher. The giant seems to recognize some hidden aptitude in the young Tahir Shah, perhaps even a reminder of himself as a boy. So he dedicates himself to teaching the child the conjurer’s secret art.

Does all this seem familiar? Yes, it does. It’s the traditional set-up for every quest tale and adventure story dating back to the dawn of human communication. And I think it is the key to what makes this book so compelling: the haunting familiarity of the story’s fairy tale structure casts a spell over its readers, drawing us into the adventure as we have been time and again, ever since we were children.

After the boy-hero’s introduction to the world of magic, the story abruptly shifts to twenty years later. Tahir Shah is a grown man. The giant is a boyhood memory. Shah is not a magician. He is a resident of London with friends who wonder when he is going to get a proper job, buy a house, and take up golf. He feels an emptiness, and a nagging desire to escape. He makes the sudden decision to abandon the prospect of a routine and comfortable life in England. He will travel to India. He will seek out the magician Feroze. He will persuade the sorcerer to take him on as his apprentice.

What follows is a kaleidoscopic journey to a bizarre and marvelous place where the rules of the Western world rarely apply. We meet grave robbers and con-artists, lunatics and holy men. The tale is sometimes humorous, and sometimes appalling. It can be read as an educational travelogue or a modern-day fable. In any case, it is thoroughly enchanting.

Sorcerer’s Apprentice reminds me very much of another book I enjoyed: Robert-Houdin’s King of the Conjurers. The autobiography of the Father of Modern Conjuring reads so much like an adventure story plotted by Arthur Conan Doyle that one begins to wonder just how much of it was made up. The story is so cleverly plotted, so fantastic, so perfect, that it becomes difficult to believe it actually happened.

This leads me an intriguing question, a question brought to mind by two books concerned with the nature of magic and illusion — two books that are themselves illusions — but one that I believe applies to many other books:

Are autobiographies ever really true?

Autobiographies are written in hindsight. They are not complete chronicles. They include only those recollections the author has chosen to share.

Memories are flexible. They change with time and experience. And, in the telling, there is always the temptation to make the tale just a bit more interesting . . .

I could go on, but perhaps this question is too large for a book review. I encourage you to contemplate it and reach your own conclusions. And I’ll share one of my own:

I think the definition of the word true extends beyond “factual.” It includes the meanings “genuine” and “sincere.” In this sense, a story doesn’t have to have taken place to be true. Like a favorite fairy tale, a story can be true when it leads us to a genuine insight about its author, the world, and ourselves.

Powered by WordPress | Designed by Elegant Themes