Sunday, 23 June 2013

Chess Story by Stefan Zweig

The emotional wallop of this book is far out of proportion to its size. At 84 pages, I read it in less than an hour. But that hour was filled with pain and hope and human persistence and human degradation and it hurt to read.

This is the story of a chess tournament on a ship bound for Buenos Aires. A world grandmaster is on board, challenged to play by a consortium of much lesser players. But while they are getting their asses handed to them, a quiet voice starts to tell them what moves to make.

This man knows more about chess that anyone they've ever met, and is possibly more skilled than the grandmaster, but no one has ever heard of him. I'm not going to go into details of how he learned how to play chess so well - suffice it to say it was in the process of being held for extended periods by the Nazis.

But the techniques he used to survive his experiences are now the same ones that keep him captive. He has survived, but he carries his prison with him. In order to survive, he had to become something that cannot simply be left behind or discarded. It will travel with him all the rest of his days, for better or for worse.

As a look at both the fragility and the durability of humanity in the face of overwhelming evil, Chess Story pulls no punches, relies on no technical flourishes. It is told quietly and sparely. And because there is nowhere to hide in this story, there is nowhere to hide from it.

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