Saturday, December 28, 2013

Chess - Stefan Zweig

'... a human being, an intellectual human being who constantly bends the entire force of his mind on the ridiculous task of forcing a wooden king into the corner of a wooden board, and does it without going mad!'

During his final days in Brazil, staying in exile, days before ending his life,  Stefan Zweig completed his last work of fiction, sent it across to his American Publisher. A short but brilliantly conceived and presented short novel, went on to become a masterpiece.

The travelers in the cruise ship from New York to Buenos Aires, have a dignitary among them, the reigning world chess Champion, Mirko Czentovic.  The all encompassing, never lost any game of the mind, not known for being friendly or social and usually remained in his own quarters. However, the narrator( nameless) and his friends had other ideas. The long, boring journey can be made a bit entertaining, if they manage to lure the champion for a game of chess. The early attempt to bring him to a discussion or conversation failed, and a direct attempt was put at bay by the champion asking for an exorbitant amount of money for a game ( only one he reminded).  There was some one wiling to fund the money, in the form of a Scottish Millionaire.  The one against many was abandoned as there was not sufficient boards , and as an alternate, they decided to join force against the champion. The first game was lost, as expected even before the group of men realised.  One more board was set up, and the game was moving towards a similar end, when an old gentleman, a doctor, intervened and manipulated the way out to a draw, with his clear predictions of the moves in advance. The equation is now changed, as there is someone to stand up to the champion. They immediately wanted to set up a dual again, but the old man was reluctant. He hasn't touched a chess board for 2--25 years and did not think he can ever do it again.  

Dr B, as he is known, an Austrian, belonged to a family of physicist and financial consultants of the Monarchs who ruled Austria. The family, who had the the possession of the documents and information of the wealthy and mighty of the Austrian elite, thus became the target of the Nazi authorities who conquered the tiny Austrian empire. HE was arrested and was put under a solitary cell ( shut in a hotel room, converted as a detention center by the Nazis) without any contact to the rest of the world, except for the occasional interrogation. As is known, the solitary confinement can break down the resistance of any individual and the case wasn't different for him. his ability to withstand and resist the interrogation was at the brink of break down. The need for something to get his attention to succeeded after few months when he managed to slip his hand to the coat pocket of a Nazi Officer ( during an endless wait for interrogation in the adjacent room) and brought out a small book. Hidden in his trousers, he sneaked the book into his room, only to realise that this contain the record and commentary of the 150 chess world championship matches. Savoring whatever was available, setting up the square patterns in his blanket, playing with imaginary pieces, he mastered all the games, and started playing matches against himself . So much was the obsession, it broke down all his sanity, ending up in an asylum, to recuperate. The game of chess aboard the vessel, brought back the days of detention and his trouble past.

The game of chess was agreed upon and despite his ability to play the game physically, the challenger managed to defeat the champion, as is expected in such tales. The game is growing back on him and the days of obsessive, self destructive days and the symptoms of the dark history of insanity resurfaced, as warned by the doctors who treated him earlier. The rematch is now getting into an act of self destruction and personal sabotage as the reigning champion witness the changes in his opponent.

Stefan Zweig, brings out this subtlety of human psychological conditions in this beautiful tale. The game of chess is also a game of survival, a game of resistance to the oppressors. The board is same and the strength of the army is the same at the beginning. The fight is played in the mind, and executed on the board ( interestingly, the champion, undefeated since the age of 15, can not play blind fold, he need a physical representation in the form of a board) , while his opponent is played all along in mind, never to touch the board).  The collective conscience of the crowd against the might of the champion can also be referred to the conditions of this country. The duality of the individual under extreme conditions when he plays with himself ( White 'I' and Black 'I'), the psychological conflict and anguish, resulting in the mental conditions that put him in the hospital, Zweig, interestingly uses multiple narrative technique, with the unnamed narrator giving way to a third voice to describe the early days of prodigal grown of the Chess Champion from an orphan from Yougoslavia to a legend,  and a first person narrative of the detention days under the Nazi's recounted by the challenger.

The book is written in 1942, when the second world war as at its peak. The references can be made to the prevailing conditions of world . The arrogant, unfriendly and brutal leader ( for Germany) is being challenged by the powerless, but ambitious minnows , with the help of a mysterious support ( the Allied forces).  Fairly simple sounding narrative, but the writing is loaded and deep. Similar to a chess game, it is progressed move by move, psychic and dramatic , towards a check-mate. Another stunning little book.

Chess ( 1942)

Stefan Zweig ( translated from German by Anthea Bell in 2006)

Penguin Modern Classics

83 Pages
A Common Reader, Wiki,

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