The other day I finished The man Who Loved Dogs, of which a review will be forthcoming soon but upon finishing said book and being impressed by it, everything else on the shelves seemed a little less exciting. With a day out with mates on the cards – which means getting to a meeting place at least five hours early to read – I needed something to occupy myself. So I finally decided to reread a couple of novellas, the first of which, being this slinky effort.
Travelers by ship from New York to Buenos Aires find that on board with them is the world champion of chess, an arrogant and unfriendly man. They come together to try their skills against him and are soundly defeated. Then a mysterious passenger steps forward to advise them and their fortunes change. How he came to possess his extraordinary grasp of the game of chess and at what cost lie at the heart of Zweig’s story.
At 78 pages you wouldn’t think that this story would contain much in the way of depth but despite the length or lack of, it’s thinness is at odds with its surprisingly weighty subject matter.
The challenge of writing a review for such a short book is a bit like a game of Chess itself, both have limits, for one it’s 64 black and white squares and for the other, allowing only a certain amount of information to escape the review without spoiling anything important for the reader. Both are fascinating pursuits, whose limits belie the ridiculous amount of depth involved and an infinitely malleable ability with which to play with.
Chess can be read as a straight forward story of two men squaring off against each other in an epic battle to decide who wins between these two polar opposite (in all ways) opponents. It’s not just the colour of their chess pieces that differs, there is a clash of experiences, styles and mindset, as well as histories and motivations that are completely different and their only shared desire being the extreme obsession to win.
Naturally there is substance to the tale than that, Zweig wrote this book at a time when Hitler was busy conquering Europe and although he escaped to the Americas, his disgust and sadness at seeing the events unfolding eventually lead to the author and his wife’s suicide shortly after this book was first published. There is certainly a feeling in the prose of the profound effect of surviving, coupled with that of despair as well, with a lack of anything approaching real redemption.
As well the main character encountering the Nazis in the dark times of WWII, there are plenty of subtle nods to Hitler, with the ego, cold reasoning and need to conquer all comers. The psychology of the players comes into its own when back stories are revealed to put into context specific things that have happened that Chess allows them – in part – to come to terms with these experiences, yet also leaves them teetering on the brink of madness and isolation.
Even if you have never played the game you can still be drawn into this book by the human aspect, the vulnerabilities and experiences with which these players carry. The story brings the game – although I wonder if game is the right term – to life, it’s a vital and dramatic element of the experience of oneself, of hard lives, of torture and breakdown and ultimately of the desire to win at all costs and the effects that that can have on oneself.