The Man Who Made Spain the Magic Capital of the World

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Going out to dinner with Juan Tamariz in Madrid is a little like accompanying a cartoon character on a journey to the real world. As I walked with the 80-year-old magician on side streets off the city center’s main drag, the Calle Gran Vía, heads turned left and right. Tamariz has been a professional magician for 52 years, and in that time, he has managed the singular feat of becoming both a household name in his home country and a living legend in magic everywhere. He is referred to by magicians all over the world, and waiters all over Madrid, as Maestro. David Blaine has called him “the greatest and most influential card magician alive.” But in Spain, Tamariz is an icon, less like Blaine or David Copperfield and more like Kermit the Frog.

A cluster of young men smoking a joint, heads bowed and pupils dilated, whispered, “Tamariz?” uncertain if they could believe their eyes. (Imagine getting good and baked in public and seeing Kermit strolling by.) One passing woman did a Buster Keaton-grade double take, culminating in an expression of such uninhibited delight that witnessing it seemed to amount to a violation of her privacy. Tamariz is used to this. He will pause midsentence to say hello, or pose for a picture, before returning seamlessly to whatever conversation he was engaged in the previous moment. A preternatural night owl — he often goes to bed when he sees the sun coming out — Tamariz is the last to leave any restaurant he dines in, permitting just about every other customer to approach him on their way out. “They always make the same joke,” he whispered to me, after a man asked him to make his wife disappear. But Tamariz reacted as though it were the first time anyone had come up with the notion.

I had just attended a performance by Tamariz at a hotel in the trendy Malasaña district, where 40 or so local residents came out to see him in the flesh. The size of the audience — “spectators,” in the magician’s parlance — allowed them to sit just a few feet from Tamariz, which is his preference these days. Most of them joined him at the front at one point or another, and much of the magic seemed to be executed by them. As often as Tamariz had someone pick a card, any card, as standard operating procedure dictates, he had them simply name one or even just think of one. At times, he guided spectators through a procedure that led to an impossible result, without appearing to touch the cards himself. Two volunteers shuffled a deck and cut it into four piles; without knowing it, they had found the four aces. They each chose a card and replaced it in the deck, dividing it in half between themselves; cutting again, each located the other’s card. In the end, two spectators shuffled separate decks, both of which were then found to be in the exact same order, down to the last card. The crowd gasped and squealed, and when each trick was over, those remaining craned their necks to catch the Maestro’s attention and be called up next.

In the United States, the most visible performers of magic in the late 20th century were stage illusionists — Doug Henning, David Copperfield, Siegfried & Roy — all of whom worked with big boxes and flashing lights. The sort of magician, in other words, who might actually make someone’s wife disappear. This put them as much in competition with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas as with their predecessors in magic; they were creators of spectacle, witnessed at a distance. But Tamariz appeared on stage and screen armed with little more than his two hands. Instead of relying on carefully engineered contraptions, he engineered the attention of his audience. He introduced Spanish viewers to the style of magic called “close-up,” done with ordinary objects, in near-enough proximity for a conversation and incorporating the participation of spectators.

Tamariz has performed on American television once, on a 1994 NBC special called “The World’s Greatest Magic.” By then, he had mostly retired from Spanish television, after regular appearances over the course of nearly 20 years. But he was introduced by the host as “the world’s greatest close-up magician — perhaps the greatest that ever lived.” He was certainly nothing like the American archetype of a stage magician, producing doves in black tie and tails. Tamariz sat at a small casino table, wearing a purple top hat. “NOW I’M GOING TO DO ESPECIAL TRICK!” Tamariz screamed. He handed out a deck of cards, demanding, “SHUFFLE SHUFFLE SHUFFLE”; he picked up the table to show that there was nothing under it. The spectators jumped at his abrupt shifts in volume.

The trick he did is called El Cochecito, and it is one of Tamariz’s signature pieces. In it, spectators are shown a toy car — the cochecito — and one is invited to choose a card from a deck. The deck is shuffled and spread out on the table. Tamariz then invites another spectator to push the cochecito along the length of the deck; it eventually seems to hit a snag and stops in front of one card, resisting the spectator’s hand. Tamariz eliminates most of the cards, laying out those remaining in a different configuration, face down. But no matter the path it travels, the cochecito still seems to stop at the same card. The ending, like a perfect rhyming couplet, is both unexpected and inevitable: It is, of course, the chosen card. Tamariz punctuates the moment of climax by stroking an invisible violin, droning out a melody as he saws away.

Three years later, David Blaine’s “Street Magic” special popularized the close-up style Tamariz pioneered on television in Spain. Since then, close-up has turned out to be better suited for online video and social media than the smoke and mirrors that once prevailed. A phone camera can easily capture a pair of hands within its frame, and a surprising visual effect makes for an easily distributed miniature; “Magic tricks” sits among TikTok’s main browsing categories between “Daily life” and “Comedy.” On Penn & Teller’s “Fool Us,” a TV show in which magicians attempt to perform a trick that the duo can’t figure out, Tamariz is often invoked by name. Spanish magicians appear on the show on a regular basis and get the better of the hosts at an exceptionally high rate. “When we see and hear someone with a Spanish accent doing cards,” Penn Jillette says in one episode, “we get terrified.” In an interview, Jillette credited their success to Tamariz, who “created a whole culture in Spain of people taking magic seriously.”

That may be an understatement. In the 1970s, Tamariz decided that magic needed an established school of thought, like the French surrealist movement, and composed a manifesto. It became the founding document of the Escuela Mágica de Madrid, a collective dedicated to the advancement of their craft. If the group modeled itself on an artistic movement, it operated much like a research laboratory: The magicians conducted clinical trials, gathering spectators to witness their performances and soliciting feedback, and produced a peer-reviewed journal, the Circular.

Magic is not often counted among the fine arts by outsiders, but Tamariz makes a strong case to the contrary. That he does so while wearing a purple hat, playing air violin and screaming at the top of his lungs is the kind of paradox that troubles cultural critics but not the viewing public. And as ubiquitous as his presence has been on Spanish television, Tamariz’s work can also be found on the shelves of any magic shop on the planet. Unlike most literature in the field, many of his books don’t consist of methods for tricks, instead expounding in dense, philosophical detail on the aesthetics of magic: the question of how to cause someone to experience something that could not have taken place. In Tamariz’s writings, a deck of cards is a medium for the investigation of human perception. Onstage, it may fly through the air at any moment.

In Spanish, a magic trick is called a juego, a game, which Tamariz prefers to truco, with its implications of cheating. It’s often lamented by magicians that the general public considers magic to be best suited for children — the edgy presentations of Penn & Teller or the risqué choreography of David Copperfield seem like attempts to challenge this perception. Tamariz inverts this concern: For him, magic is only for children. In the presence of the impossible, an adult will regress to the “prelogical” state of childhood.

Juan Tamariz-Martel Negrón himself first experienced the impossible at 4 or 5, when his father took him to see a stage magician in Madrid. In short order, a child’s magic set gave way to a book by the Catholic priest and amateur magician Padre Wenceslao Ciuró, which laid out the techniques of sleight of hand with cards — Tamariz still performs tricks he learned from it. As a teenager, Tamariz finally stumbled across the rabbit hole he had been looking for, in the form of Spain’s organization of magicians, the Sociedad Española de Ilusionismo. He began attending meetings, despite being too young to join.

There, he came into contact with Arturo de Ascanio, a lawyer by trade, who was becoming the éminence grise of the Spanish scene. Ascanio applied the systematic approach of law to magic, generating a terminology to identify the mechanisms by which magic comes across to an observer. For Ascanio, there was a deceptively simple kernel at the core of any magic trick: the “contrast between an initial situation and a final situation.” A trick creates an effect without a cause — at least, not an apparent one. Ascanio called the gap between the two the Parenthesis. Though there must be a hidden method, it cannot be perceived; it is supplanted by a “magical gesture,” like the sprinkling of magic dust.

Ascanio was the great theorist of the concept of misdirection, the means of controlling a spectator’s attention in order to conceal the magician’s deception. He believed this strategy should be carefully integrated into the course of ordinary motion, which put Spaniards at an advantage. “We Latins are blessed,” Ascanio wrote. “We possess an abundance of gestures and manners when we speak that come naturally to us.”

In Spanish, a magic trick is called a juego, a game, which Tamariz prefers to truco, with its implications of cheating.Credit…Ibai Acevedo for The New York Times

If the theory was codified by Ascanio, it was most perfectly realized by a frequent visitor to Madrid, Tony Slydini, an Italian-born magician who talked with his hands and spoke like an upscale Chico Marx. Slydini practiced a sui generis style of sleight of hand that was a balletic extension of his expressive gestures. When Slydini taught Tamariz how to vanish a coin, it wasn’t the secret move he emphasized; it was the gesture of sprinkling his closed fist with invisible dust. Slydini deemed the young man’s execution unconvincing and instructed him to carry around a bag of talcum powder to practice with.

In adulthood, Tamariz pursued his vocation with monastic focus, not only fine-tuning his technique — at times to the accompaniment of a metronome — but studying philosophy and art history for application to his developing ideas. His biggest breakthrough came not from a fellow magician but from a historian: Mircea Eliade, a Romanian scholar of religion known for his writing on esoteric subjects like alchemy and shamanism. In his book “Mephistopheles and the Androgyne,” Eliade offers an exegesis of a (likely apocryphal) legend: the Indian Rope Trick. The story, in its many variations, describes a magician causing a rope to rise, of its own accord, into the sky until the far end disappears from view. A boy is commanded to climb it by the magician; after he, too, disappears from view, the magician throws his knife skyward and the unfortunate assistant’s limbs fall to the ground. In the end, the boy returns in one piece. Subsequent scholarship has found slim evidence that the trick was ever actually performed, but Eliade’s concern was the ubiquity of the rumor, which he found documented not only “in India ancient and modern” but also in “in China, in the Dutch East Indies, in Ireland and in ancient Mexico.” Like an ancient myth of resurrection, Eliade argued, the Indian Rope Trick used symbols to re-enact events both cosmic and worldly: the origin and end of the universe, the life cycle of death and rebirth.

Tamariz began to see a symbolic dimension in all the classic effects of magic. The most obvious case is the Cut and Restored Rope, in which a rope is cut in half and magically joined back together, enacting the parable of destruction and resurrection that recurs in myth. But the same principle applied to as seemingly frivolous a trick as the Egg Bag, in which an egg vanishes and reappears in a black bag. To Tamariz, there could hardly be a more literal manifestation of the creation of life. It was even apparent in as abstract an effect as the Ambitious Card, made famous by the Canadian magician Dai Vernon, who fooled Harry Houdini with a version of it in a historic encounter between the two magicians. A card chosen by a spectator is repeatedly inserted into the middle of a deck, yet is again and again discovered at the top. To Tamariz, the trick is a hero’s journey: The card, representing the spectator, lives out a rise to power, an ascension and liberation.

Tamariz’s most detailed description of the experience of magic comes from an essay in his book “La Vía Mágica,” called “The Theory of False Solutions and the Magic Way.” The path is depicted in a painting by Tamariz’s partner at the time, Marga Nicolau. The spectator rides on a carriage pulled by two horses, one winged and one earthbound. The path takes various turns, some of which represent false solutions — any idea the spectator may come up with for the method behind the effect. The magician must prevent spectators from entertaining even the false solutions, in the process of leading them away from the real one, too — leaving the impossible as the only logical explanation. The magician makes use, in other words, of our own capacity for empirical observation: Our active interpretation of the material of perception can permit us, if carefully guided, to see what isn’t there.

I had tracked down Tamariz through his English-language editor, Stephen Minch, who warned that it might be difficult to coordinate with the Maestro, given the number of projects he had underway. Long after I first wrote to Tamariz, suggesting that I visit the following spring, I heard nothing and began to think the idea might never reach fruition. But in February, I received a reply. “Middle of March is good,” he wrote, and not much else. Even after we settled on dates, I wondered if I would turn up in Spain and never manage to track him down. One of Tamariz’s current engagements, Minch mentioned, was a documentary about his life and work being produced by R. Paul Wilson, a Scottish magician and filmmaker. I sent Wilson an email, and we discovered that Tamariz had double-booked us to visit him at the same time.

In the mid-20th century, at the behest of Ascanio, Spanish magicians like Tamariz learned English in order to study the canonical literature of the craft then emerging from North America and the United Kingdom — in its way, a small act of rebellion against the parochialism of the Franco regime. But today, Wilson is one among many magicians of his generation who have learned Spanish in order to study the work of Tamariz. He discovered that an exclusive coterie of magicians across the world had done the same. More important for me, a Duolingo dropout, he wound up acting as my translator.

When I visited, Tamariz was living on the sixth floor of an unassuming building along one of the narrow streets of the neighborhood of Argüelles. Wilson and I arrived together, rang the doorbell and were greeted by Tamariz and his wife, Consuelo Lorgia, herself a magician from Colombia. We stepped into their living room, which was filled with books on art history and a large collection of VHS tapes, including American movies like “Atrapado en el Tiempo” — “Trapped in Time,” or as we know it, “Groundhog Day.” Before the twist of fate that would start his career, Tamariz spent the late 1960s studying film at the Escuela Oficial de Cinematografía, inspired by the European avant-garde of Bergman, Fellini and Antonioni. “I didn’t want to become a movie director,” he told me. “It was only to learn things from art to put in my magic.” In those years, student resistance to Franco led government ministers to harshly curtail university education, and the school was shut down days before Tamariz was meant to graduate.

Times were changing in Spain. By 1975, the Franco regime had come to an end, not with a revolution, despite the best efforts of students like Tamariz, but with the dictator’s death of natural causes. It was that same year that Tamariz and his friend Julio Carabias walked into the offices of the state-run Televisión Española with a proposition: close-up magic on television. The programming director balked; he didn’t care for magic. Tamariz showed him a trick: a color-changing pocketknife. The director was impressed but unconvinced. So Tamariz did something he had never done before and has never done since. He gathered everyone from the office floor together and performed the trick again with the director behind him, allowing him to witness the secret method. The ploy worked, leading to Tamariz’s first show, “Tiempo de Magia.”

On “Tiempo,” he appeared before a studio audience dressed in a turtleneck, slacks and a smoking jacket with five-inch lapels, eschewing the customary tuxedo. At first relatively reserved, he celebrated the discovery of a spectator’s card by stomping his feet and yelling “¡CHAN-TATACHAN!” — nonsense syllables that are his personal version of “abracadabra!” Over the years, the loungewear gave way to a hippie vibe: jeans and a loudly patterned vest, a sparkly top hat over increasingly shaggy hair, his exclamations accompanied by the strains of his invisible violin. In a country still adjusting from the cultural isolation and censoriousness of the dictatorship, television was a precious resource, and Televisión Española was the only game in town. In his book “The New Spaniards,” the journalist John Hooper writes that “in the early eighties in Andalusia, which is the hottest region in Europe, more homes had television sets than refrigerators.”

Down a slim corridor from Tamariz’s living room, lined with vintage posters of magicians from the early 20th century, was a small room where, you might say, the magic happens. In a civilian residence, it might be a storage room, and household items were piled up in its back corners. But it also housed Tamariz’s greatest treasures: his library of magic books, accumulated over half a century. It was a space for practice, for reflection, for writing and for the exchange of ideas with compatriots, in sessions that often last until the early morning, when his guests depart to go to sleep and Tamariz stays to continue to practice, reflect and write.

At home, Tamariz trades his usual Panama hat for a brimless cap, giving him the aura of an ancient mystic. His English is littered with pet phrases that sound more natural in Spanish: “very much indeed” and “what a pity!” Though he is nothing if not expressive, he is difficult to quote, with his speech shifting back and forth between narration and re-enactment, punctuated by sound effects. He laughs, jokes and yelps, as he does in performance, but can also be sober and introspective, liable to quote Schopenhauer or Borges in conversation. At times, he seems almost melancholy about the impossibility of conveying his depth of feeling for his chosen craft. “I feel I am more my own self when performing magic than I am in many other circumstances of life,” he writes in his most recent book, “The Magic Rainbow,” “where my shyness prevents me from expressing myself as freely as I would like.”

“These are the books that I love most,” Tamariz said, gesturing to a glass case containing first editions of 19th- and early-20th-century texts. He gave me a tour of his library, delivering an off-the-cuff historical lecture along the way. Tamariz traces the origins of his approach to the French magicians of the 19th century, particularly Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, along with the Viennese Johann Nepomuk Hofzinser. Back then, what we now think of as magic was mostly associated with either the occult or petty crime — two spheres that, depending on your point of view, overlap to at least some degree, and each of which sometimes makes use of a deck of cards. But Robert-Houdin and Hofzinser presented themselves as respectable gentlemen of European modernity, legitimizing the idea of deception as entertainment. Together, these figures represent the central dialectic of Tamarizian magic.

Less is known about the work of Hofzinser, who never published his methods; those that magicians since have been unable to explain are known as the Hofzinser Problems. As for Robert-Houdin, his influence extends far beyond magic. Not long after his death, a shoemaker’s son named Georges Méliès purchased the Theatre Robert-Houdin and upon seeing a demonstration of the newly invented cinematograph by the Lumière brothers, acquired his own projector. He eventually constructed a camera and turned the theater into the world’s first movie studio. In making his own short films — of quiet scenes in Paris, magic acts or trips to the moon — he discovered that by stopping the camera and changing the scene, he could achieve effects too impossible to reproduce onstage. This technique, now known as “editing,” became the foundation of modern cinema. It was the core principles of magic, Tamariz argues, that made the art of film possible; after all, what is a movie but an illusion that tells a story?

“I think Juan’s genius really is live, in front of you,” says the magician Asi Wind, who has been a consultant to David Blaine. “It’s like food. It could look good in a brochure or on video or whatever, but you need to taste it.” Though Tamariz rose to fame for his appearances on Spanish television, his legend among magicians rests on spontaneous performances in person, often well past midnight in hotel lobbies at magic conventions. I’m somewhat familiar with magic myself — I competed in, and won, a close-up competition at the Ohio Magi-Fest when I was 13 — and it was this kind of performance I was most eager to see. So after spending a couple of evenings with Tamariz, I asked him to show me something at his apartment, but he demurred. One spectator, he said, was not enough. There ought to be at least one more person. His ideal setting, Tamariz said, is like a flamenco performance: the artist fully surrounded, in communion with his public. (It should be said that this is also the most difficult environment for executing sleight of hand.) He suggested we wait for another occasion on which Wilson was present.

That occasion arrived the next evening, between one of Wilson’s interview tapings and that night’s outing for dinner. We each had a deck of cards on our person, and Tamariz asked to borrow one. I had not started my voice recorder at that point, and it would have seemed an unforgivable disruption of the magical atmosphere to stop him in order to do so. I’m glad I didn’t, because it would have interfered with a phase that Tamariz considers part of the magical effect: the time that elapses after the trick is over. Like Méliès, Tamariz accomplishes this by turning off, so to speak, the camera. With careful management of attention, a spectator can be prevented from “recording” certain events at all. Even those that they do witness can be eliminated; neuropsychology has shown that short-term memory lasts 15 to 30 seconds, after which it either has to be encoded as a long-term memory or it decays. The reason you can’t find your keys minutes after you set them down is part of what can make a magic trick impossible to reconstruct. Our memory is a game of telephone with ourselves, subject to revision — and open to suggestion — as soon as the moment has passed.

I lost track that night of which deck was in play at which time, and I shuffled each of them, repeatedly, all of which is standard for a Tamariz session. He started slowly, gradually building up speed. I shuffled a small packet of cards and dealt them into two equal piles.

Tamariz asked me to perform a magical gesture, to cause some of the cards to pass from one pile to the other. I misunderstood, and gestured symmetrically, with both hands.

“Oh,” Tamariz said, looking disappointed. He informed me I had changed the outcome, and invited me to turn the cards over.

One pile was all red, the other all black. I don’t remember him touching them once.

Then Tamariz removed the aces from the deck. From its remainder, he had me pick a card — I don’t remember the value, but the suit was hearts. Tamariz spread the whole deck in front of me, face up, to demonstrate that all the cards were different. Then he picked up the aces, and as he spread them out, they both transformed and expanded, yielding the whole suit of hearts, in order. Wilson smiled quietly.

It was getting to be time for dinner, and bit by bit, we were gathering our things. Then, like Columbo scratching his head and turning back for just one more thing, Tamariz picked up a deck. He handed it to me and asked me to cut it in two. From one half, I freely selected a card, the four of spades. I replaced it in the half it came from and cut it, more than once.

Then Tamariz asked me to cut the other half of the deck, as many times as I wanted, and look at the card I had arrived at. It was a queen, which in the counting system of a deck of cards, with aces at one and kings at 13, holds a value of 12.

“No,” I said, out loud, knowing what was coming but not believing it could happen. The circumstances implied an inevitable conclusion: that if I counted 12 cards down in the first half of the deck, I would find my four of spades. There was no conceivable way I could have cut one random card to a location matching the value of another random card. Still, he suggested I check.

I counted 12 cards down, where I found the four of spades.

The problem with describing what happened is that the only account I can give is objectively impossible. Except in the case of a highly unlikely coincidence, I see no way this effect could have been achieved. Coincidences certainly occur, but they can’t be relied on by a magician. The number of possible arrangements of a deck of cards is so high — the factorial of 52, which is 8 followed by 67 digits — that every time you shuffle a deck, it is very likely in a sequence that no deck has been in thus far in human history.

That night, I had put the cards in an order unique to me, to that moment, and to that place, in the middle of March in Argüelles, Madrid. If there is something missing from my memory, I never want to know what it is.

Shuja Haider is a senior editor at The Nation. He writes on left politics, American music, and contemporary subcultures.

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