The Mahdi’s Bullet

The Magician’s Wife

by Brian Moore
Dutton/A William Abrahams Book, 229 pp., $23.95

The Magician’s Wife comes on like an old French costume movie, perhaps by Marcel Carné. Danielle Darrieux would play the heroine, Jean-Louis Barrault her husband, and Charles Boyer, if he could be persuaded to make a cameo appearance, the dashing Colonel Deniau. The film has to be French, because the story is set first at the court of Napoleon III and then in half-colonized Algeria. The background for the first part is Winterhalter, with jewels glittering and court uniforms ablaze with medals; for the second part it is lushly orientaliste, all galloping hooves, flying burnooses, and silken cushions heaped on rich rugs.

The jacket says that Brian Moore based his story “on an actual historical incident.” He has often done that before: his last novel, The Statement, for instance, was about the French Nazi Paul Touvier, and No Other Life was about President Aristide of Haiti. The Magician’s Wife is set further back in time, but it is quite topical in view of recent events in Algeria. In the autumn of 1856 the French were planning to extend their conquest of the country southward with a campaign set for the following spring. The project is threatened by an uprising reported to be imminent in the region. A Muslim holy man, the marabout Bou-Aziz, is to be proclaimed Mahdi and will lead a jihad against the French. Holy men were supposed to be able to perform miracles, or at least magic. So a clever French Arabist, called Colonel Deniau in the novel, has the idea of getting a famous magician to perform before the Algerians. Henri Lambert’s skill is such that he will be able to persuade them that no Mahdi could stand up to his powers—that Christian magic is stronger than Muslim magic. The rebels will therefore abandon the idea of rebellion. Lambert is to be the French secret weapon.

To flatter him into agreeing, and also to persuade the emperor of the showman’s fitness for the undertaking, Deniau arranges for Lambert and his attractive young wife, Emmeline, to be invited to Compiègne for an imperial hunting and shooting party. The série goes on for seven days, and every event in it—meets, battues, luncheons, dinners, balls—is painstakingly described. So are Emmeline’s toilettes, a different one for every occasion, and all designed by Worth (disguised as West). While she takes along a lady’s maid specially hired to do her hair in unprecedentedly becoming coiffures, she is chronically anxious about her appearance. There is a less frivolous side to her character though: the conspicuous consumption at the imperial court disgusts her as much as the emperor’s persistent groping; while the killing of thousands of birds makes her literally sick. She is politically correct before her time.

Deniau’s plan succeeds: the Lamberts’ visit to Algeria is arranged, and he has flirted so heavily with Emmeline that she has fallen for him and expects to become his lover once they get to Africa …

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