Thursday, October 30, 2008

David Merlini

With a name like Merlini it was inevitable that my protégé from Budapest would be a magician. From the moment I saw his act I knew he could become a world superstar. What I never imagined was that he would one day place his life in my hands.

David Merlini held 500 celebrities, journalists and television executives spellbound at the Majestic Hotel in Cannes on the first day of MIPCOM, the $500m media fair, with a death-defying attempt to shatter the world record for surviving underwater without breathing.

David Blaine held the title, after he spent more than 17 minutes submerged in a glass globe on Oprah Winfrey’s show earlier this year. But Merlini was confident he could seize that record, after spending more than a year in training.

“I have held my breath for well over 20 minutes in my bathtub,” he assured me. “And I already hold the record for the longest underwater escape — you’ve seen the video.”

He’s right, and it’s the most terrifying 10 minutes and 17 seconds ever filmed. Merlini was chained and handcuffed in a glass cabinet like an up-ended coffin in Hollywood, for a feat that was a direct homage to his hero, Harry Houdini. Unlike Houdini, he did not slip his shackles in a few swift movements, but wrestled with them constantly.

“When you’re fighting to get out of chains,” David told me, “You use up a lot of blood oxygen. This time, I’m going to be perfectly still. The secret is not to hold your breath — it is to breathe out, at timed intervals, just a bubble or two at a time.”

Merlini has accomplished feats of escape and endurance that have never been copied. He has been chained inside a steel box that was welded shut and thrown into the Danube by the world’s strongest man, Laszlo Fekete. He has been suspended from a helicopter by a burning rope, strait-jacketed in a refrigerator at minus 38F, buried in concrete up to his neck and dumped once again into the Danube, and frozen with 300 gallons of liquid nitrogen.

But this time, I was afraid for him. As I ended my introduction and he was lowered into the tank in Cannes, I could not help remembering how I had imagined this scene before. At the climax of my novel Ella, the twisted guru who is controlling the heroine has himself submerged in a tank of water and drowned on live TV, convinced that Ella will bring him back to life in a televised miracle.

My tension must have been visible to the crowd. “You looked like a headless chicken on the stage,” my brother-in-law Shipi told me later, laughing. But my emotion was genuine and I couldn’t hide it: if anything went wrong, I might see my friend die before my eyes.

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Uri beyond the panic (All photos are taken by Irene Hell)

As the clock ticked, the atmosphere in the Majestic was nerve-shredding. Merlini seemed barely to blink as he swayed inside the tank, a tiny bubble escaping his lips every twenty seconds or so.

A roar went up as the countdown passed the record mark, and still Merlini showed no sign that he was ready to emerge. I could feel the blood pumping in my head. Nothing would induce him to quit — every second he was extending his grip on the record, making it more and more impossible for anyone ever to surpass him.

After 20 minutes and 30 seconds I saw his eyes roll up in his head as he started to slump to the side. If he wasn’t already unconscious, he was slipping into a blackout, and at any moment his body’s reflexes would force him to gulp for air.

There was no time to prise off the lid. In those few precious seconds, Merlini could drown. Security guards were standing on either side of the tank with sharp tools clutched in their fists, and I gave the order: “Get him out of there! Smash the glass!”

A ton of water exploded across the stage — and it was stained an ominous pink. As Merlini stumbled out of the wreckage, I saw he was badly cut across one side, on his arm and leg.

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Merlini just survived his bloody new world record

Paramedics at the scene bandaged his wounds and we rushed him to the city hospital by ambulance. There was a grim surprise for us there — the accident and emergency department was packed with people, some of them nursing serious injuries from car accidents and fights.

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Uri and Merlini. “Protégé” sometimes it means – nursing.

I asked Merlini how he was feeling, and he grinned: “I feel no pain,” he said. “I never do, not until the next day. It’s part of my secret — I can endure suffering that would kill a normal man, because I can shut off the pain.”

I made certain that he wasn’t bleeding, then told Shipi to stand guard on Merlini’s place in the A&E queue. “We’re going to a party,” I said.

And we did — the star-studded affair hosted by ProSieben’s CEO Guillaume de Posch. The point of MIPCOM, after all, was to introduce Merlini to the world’s TV bosses, and they weren’t going to come and visit him in hospital.

When we returned to A&E three hours later, a very bored Shipi had almost reached the front of the queue. “You missed a great party,” I told him. That’ll teach him to call me a headless chicken...

Update: Merlini needed 15 stitches, and had lost about a litre of blood. He shrugged it off: “It’s all part of the game... the game of life!”

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