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.”