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The Mysteries Of My Life by Richard Kaufman & René Lavand

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii March, 1999)


René Lavand is unarguably one of the most distinctive conjuring artists of our time. Combining masterful and original technique, detailed and finely nuanced approaches to classic plots, and original and dramatic presentations delivered in a style overflowing with earnest and arresting intensity, the totality of these elements—as with the work of any true master—is much greater than the sum of the parts. And, oh yes, he happens to do all this with one hand.

To see Sr. Lavand work is an experience not readily described, and one such performance is far more powerful than any ten books of description will ever be. Nevertheless, a number of attempts have been made to record his work in print. In Magic From the Soul, published by Editorial Frakson, a significant volume of material was frustratingly marred by the incompetent English that has unfortunately been typical of that publishing house. (Despite such flaws, Frakson has put out some important books, not the least of which include their trilogy of volumes by Juan Tamariz.) Much of the material in that book was rewritten in yet another edition by the same title, published by Mike Caveney's Magic Words. This book cleaned up the more obvious problems of the Frakson edition, however the technical descriptions remained terse, and a number of theoretical essays were mystifyingly omitted. (Three tricks from that book are redescribed in this latest volume.)

And so, while a thorough study of Sr. Lavand's published record still undoubtedly warrants inclusion of these previous works—one for the theoretical material, the other for a significant volume of tricks—this book at hand is probably the most successful attempt to date to capture a portrait of René Lavand's magic on the printed page. This volume describes a formal act that Sr. Lavand has devised in what appears to be fairly recent years. Since most of this master's professional work takes place in Spanish-speaking countries, in which he utilizes the Spanish deck that is of different composition than our own, a great deal of his material is not applicable outside these countries with the Western deck.

In recent years, however, Sr. Lavand has made a number of appearances in the United States and other English-speaking nations, and has at the same time experienced a burst of creativity, much of which has been applied to the Western deck. Although it is not clearly stated in the pages of this book, the act described seems to be the result of these more recent, Western-based efforts. The product of these efforts is a complete performance consisting of twelve card tricks, routined together in diabolically subtle and ingenious fashion and producing an act of astonishing elegance and almost indescribable power.

The first section of the book, written by Richard Kaufman and comprising 112 pages, proceeds in a relentlessly linear fashion, as the author describes the preparation and then the procedures for the act's complement of twelve tricks. Everything proceeds in a straight line, as needed, and so the work marches from sleight to trick to presentation to theory and then onward to another trick or presentational remark or theoretical commentary or finely detailed and illustrated sleight, all as is warranted by the evolving progression of the act. This admittedly unusual approach actually seems to work quite well in this case.

The detailed descriptions are far and away the most thorough that have yet seen print (at least in English) of Sr. Lavand's unusual techniques, and are aided substantially by the impeccable illustrations of Earle Oakes, who is probably the first magic illustrator to not embarrass himself when including portraiture in his excellent work. (A quantity of illustrations are unfortunately denoted with appended letters, i.e., 1 and 1a, etc., for reasons that remain unclear, most likely as late editions.) And while I am mentioning such graphic elements, while the hardcover binding appears devoid of design efforts, the dustjacket (which even contains some copy, for a change, on at least one of the inside flaps and the rear cover) consists of an exquisite photograph by Virginia Lee Hunter that goes far in capturing the intensity and presence of René Lavand.

Although it does no justice to the material, since Sr. Lavand primarily utilizes classic plots to which he then applies his own diabolical sense of construction and enchantingly original presentational approaches, those plots can nevertheless be briefly summarized here. The act begins with a quick two-card transposition, which is intended to serve, according to Sr. Lavand, as an opening "credential" for the audience. This is followed by a quick version of "Triumph." The next item, entitled "A Little Diversion," is intended as just that, in which a selected card is rapidly controlled by the performer in a variety of ways, through a repeated series of cuts, then at a named number, and then finally at a called number while the cards are in the performer's pocket.

The act now steps into weightier material with a version of Bill Simon's "Call to the Colors," then Vernon's "Follow the Leader," and then finally an incredible version of "Oil and Water," which some may have seen on World's Greatest Magic (marred by an over- powering and poorly narrated translation). The act proceeds into high gear now, with the performer naming a series of cards at random locations called by the audience, and eventually repeats this despite a spectator having shuffled the deck. The next effect is an incredible thought-of card-to-pocket. In an apparent finale, and despite the fact that the deck has been in play for some thirty minutes, during which time it has been repeatedly shuffled and cut at length by both the performer and the audience, the magician takes the deck in his hand, turns his head away, and manages to name every card in the deck at lightning speed, as rapidly as he can individually deal them to the table. Finally, by way of an encore, the performer reiterates his total control and knowledge of the cards by quickly naming a card and cutting to it, then naming a card at a number named by a spectator, and then finally announcing a card and locating it when the spectator calls "Stop."

These barren descriptions do poor service at capturing what Sr. Lavand has accomplished with this extraordinary assemblage of material. This is a performance that, in the right hands—certainly in its creator's hand—might well drive an audience mad with wonder, awe, drama, amazement, and perhaps even a twinge of fear. Sr. Lavand's trademark is his ability to elicit emotional reactions in his audience, yet without telling elaborate narrative stories that we often think are required to achieve such a theatrical goal in magic. What Sr. Lavand does is to carefully bring all the elements of conjuring together—effect, method, technique, psychology, presentation— and, while using each one judiciously, create a combination that yields a stunning, breathtaking result. This is indeed the great thrill of reading this book, as the authors have done a sufficiently careful job that, combined with an imaginative and contemplative reading, one can begin to grasp what the experience of a Lavand show must be like for the layman. It appears to be an experience just short of terrifying. (Admittedly, one is left to wonder where this material is specifically designed to be performed, given its length and formality.) Yet all of this must sound like empty hyperbole, unless you do several things: namely, see Lavand work, and read this book with the care and thoughtfulness it deserves.

There are also 17 sleights described in this volume, most being original with Sr. Lavand, or at very least original variations of existing techniques. Due to his handicap he has had to devise many highly personalized solutions to problems that others have solved in two-handed ways. Hence there are false shuffles, false cuts, double-undercuts (both tabled and in the hand), Scoop Additions (for single and multiple cards), second deals, third deals, double-lifts and the like, all designed to be executed with one hand. Many of these techniques are extremely difficult, others require intermediate technical abilities. While a substantial portion of these techniques might seem purposeless to the two-handed performer, certainly some of them can be put to use by such persons, whether in the course of portraying a character, recounting a particular story presentation, or, most useful of all, merely using the one-handed technique as an off- handed action that can benefit from the misdirection provided by a second hand. The Scoop Additions seem particularly suited to such an approach, but many of these sleights could be sufficiently justified in such a manner when the problem is adequately considered.

That said, this is a book that will be enormously valuable to any serious student, yet it is unlikely that such a student will utilize much of the material within. This book is a window into the mind of an expert, an intellectual, and a passionate artist. As such, its rewards and pleasures are truly countless—explicitly meaning, not readily counted. Few students have ever done justice to the eccentric and highly personalized works of similar masters like Slydini, Albert Goshman, or more recently, Juan Tamariz, Tommy Wonder, or Alex Elmsley's Bedazzled act, and little of this material is effectively performed by others. The louts and lummoxes among us invariably take the most obvious path— mistaking sincerity for good art—attempting to perform imitations of their idols, and, without exception, embarrassing themselves and their worship in the process. Certainly one can at times come away from the works of these masters with a particular trick to be put to actual use, but this is the exception, not the rule, and should not be the goal of spending time with such illustrious company. Rather, these are works and masters to be learned from, not by rote, but through close study and, one hopes, eventual insight. Sr. Lavand's finale and encore, for example, seem to utilize the most ham-handed effect possible with a memorized stack, yet the way he gets to this stage, using brilliant stratagems and impossibly unreconstructable deck switching techniques (much like the aforementioned Elmsley Bedazzled act) is an exercise in deep thinking bordering on genius.

And so, for me, this is ultimately a book of inspiration, in which all other elements become secondary. Yes, there are fascinating sleights, wonderful tricks and routines (that often become easier to do when traditional two-handed methods are substituted), interesting presentational ploys, thoughtful psychological pointers, and fascinating experiments in technical and theatrical construction. And more of that inspiration will be found in the second section of the book, written by René Lavand himself, subtitled My Life: Shuffling Memories. This comprises approximately fifty pages that is substantially autobiographical, but is by no means an autobiography, being as it is a mixed bag of personal memoir, travelogue, presentational ideas, and philosophical meanderings both magical and personal. I always value magic books that manage to capture something of the person of the performer, beyond the tricks and even the presentations, and this section certainly does, in its odd way, provide further insight into the mind of this maestro. This is a man with deeply held artistic and moral principles, a man who can be stern with an audience—even aggressive—and still humorous. I enjoyed reading this section, especially a terribly funny and yet moving account of how Sr. Lavand unwittingly came to perform at two frightening private parties held by the Cali cocaine cartel. Some of this material has appeared in the previous books mentioned above, and the translation appears to leave a great deal to be desired—the purpose of good translation being to eliminate the awkwardness of a second language, not exaggerate it—but despite its obvious flaws, I did enjoy reading this segment.

In the act, Sr. Lavand recounts, as part of a script, the idea that "perhaps while seeking perfection, I'll find excellence." If you are seeking that worthy if impossible goal of perfection in your magic, you will certainly find excellence along the path while visiting within the pages of this lovely book.

The Mysteries Of My Life • Richard Kaufman & René Lavand • 8.5" x 11" hardbound with w/full-color laminated dustjacket • 169 pages • 204 line drawings