<aside> 🗣 The Magus was published in 1965, and since that time it has become a popular cult classic. It tells the story of a bored young Englishman named Nicholas Urfe, who travels to the island of Phraxos off the coast of Greece to take up a teaching position. While there, Urfe meets Maurice Conchis—a reclusive millionaire who tells him about an incident that occurred in his life when he was a mayor of a small Greek village during the Nazi occupation of Greece. Two Greek guerrillas (or freedom fighters) from his village killed four Nazi occupiers and were subsequently caught by the Nazis. Conchis tells the Englishman how Wimmel, the head of the Nazis in his Greek town, gave him a grave choice on how to deal with the freedom fighters. What do you think of Conchis's final decision?Prof. HS


CONCHIS: We were marched to the harbour. The entire village was there, some four or five hundred people, black and grey and faded blue, crammed on to the quays with a line of die Raben watching them. The village priests, the women, even little boys and girls. They screamed as we came into sight. Like some amorphous protoplasm. Trying to break bounds, but unable to.

We went on marching. There is a large house with huge Attic acroteria facing the harbour—you know it?—in those days there was a taverna on the groundfloor. On the balcony above I saw Wimmel and behind him Anton, flanked by men with machine-guns. I was taken from the column and made to stand against the wall under the balcony, among the chairs and tables. The hostages went marching on. Up a street and out of sight.

It was very hot. A perfect blue day. The villagers were driven from the quay to the terrace with the old cannons in front of the taverna. They stood crowded there. Brown faces upturned in the sunlight, black kerchiefs of the women fluttering in the breeze. I could not see the balcony, but the colonel waited above, impressing his silence on them, his presence. And gradually they fell absolutely quiet, a wall of expectant faces. Up in the sky I saw swallows and martins. Like children playing in a house where some tragedy is taking place among the adults. Strange, to see so many Greeks . . , and not a sound. Only the tranquil cries of little birds.

Wimmel began to speak. The collaborationist interpreted.

"You will now see what happens to those... those who are the enemies of Germany... and to those who help the enemies of Germany... by order of a court martial of the German High Command held last night... three have been executed... two more will now be executed... "

All the brown hands darted up, made the four taps of the Cross. Wimmel paused. German is to death what Latin is to ritual religion—entirely appropriate.

"Following that... the eighty hostages... taken under Occupation law... in retaliation for the brutal murder... of four innocent members of the German Armed Forces... ." and yet again he paused... "will be executed."

When the interpreter interpreted the last phrase, there was an exhaled groan, as if they had all been struck in the stomach. Many of the women, some of the men, fell to their knees, imploring the balcony. Humanity groping for the non-existent pity of a deus vindicans. Wimmel must have withdrawn, because the beseechings turned to lamentations.

Now I was forced out from the wall and marched after the hostages. Soldiers, the Austrians, stood at every entrance to the harbour and forced the villagers back. It horrified me that they could help die Raben, could obey Wimmel, could stand there with impassive faces and roughly force back people that I knew, only a day or two before, they did not hate.

The alley curved up between the houses to the square beside the village school. It is a natural stage, inclined slightly to the north, with the sea and the mainland over the lower roofs. With the wall of the village school on the uphill side, and high walls to east and west. If you remember, there is a large plane tree in the garden of the house to the west. The branches come over the wall. As I came to the square that was the first thing I saw. Three bodies hung from the branches, pale in the shadow, as monstrous as Goya etchings. There was the naked body of the cousin with its terrible wound. And there were the naked bodies of the two girls. They had been disembowelled. A slit cut from their breastbones down to their pubic hair and the intestines pulled out. Half-gutted carcasses, swaying slightly in the noon wind.

Beyond those three atrocious shapes I saw the hostages. They had been herded against the school in a pen of barbed wire. The men at the back were just in the shadow of the wall, the front ones in sunlight. As soon as they saw me they began to shout. There were insults of the obvious kind to me, confused cries of appeal—as if anything I could say then would have touched the colonel. He was there, in the centre of the square, with Anton and some twenty of die Raben. On the third side of the square, to the east, there is a long wall. You know it? In the middle a gate. Iron grilles. The two surviving guerrillas were lashed to the bars. Not with rope—with barbed wire.

I was halted behind the two lines of men, some twenty yards away from where Wimmel was standing. Anton would not look at me, though Wimmel turned briefly. Anton—staring into space, as if he had hypnotized himself into believing that none of what he saw existed. As if he no longer existed himself. The colonel beckoned the collaborationist to him. I suppose he wanted to know what the hostages were shouting. He appeared to think for a moment and then he went towards them. They fell silent. Of course they did not know he had already pronounced sentence on them. He said something that was translated to them. What, I could not hear, except that it reduced the village to silence. So it was not the death sentence. The colonel marched back to me.

He said, "I have made an offer to these peasants.'' I looked at his face. It was absolutely without nervousness, excitation,- a man in complete command of himself. He went on, "I will permit them not to be executed. To go to a labour camp. On one condition. That is that you, as mayor of this village, carry out in front of them the execution of the two murderers."

I said, "I am not an executioner."

The village men began to shout frantically at me.

He looked at his watch, and said, "You have thirty seconds to decide."

Of course in such situations one cannot think. All coherence is crowded out of one's mind. You must remember this. From this point on I acted without reason. Beyond reason.

I said, "I have no choice."

He went to the end of one of the ranks of men in front of me. He took a submachine-gun from a man's shoulder, appeared to make sure that it was correctly loaded, then came back with it and presented it to me with both hands. As if it was a prize I had won. The hostages cheered, crossed themselves. And then were silent. The colonel watched me. I had a wild idea that I might turn the gun on him. But of course the massacre of the entire village would then have been inevitable.