Chess Story by Stefan Zweig
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This moving story reaches humanity on a number of levels.
Spoiler: I'm not giving away the ending but I do describe the essence of the story.
A man from Austria is on a ship to South America. On the ship is a young Russian man who is a Grand Chess Master and is on his way to play a tournament with another master.
Zweig spends the first chapter or so focusing on this young Russian. An ignorant peasant boy, orphaned at an early age is raised by the village priest. While watching the priest and another man play chess, he shows his own aptitude for the game. He soon rises among the ranks until he is a world champion.
What is interesting about the Russian is how Zweig makes him out to be little more than a savant. He has no interest in any other intellectual pursuit, reading, math, philosophy etc...he apparently is as concrete as a cinder block. His only talent is chess, which seems to be a natural ability. His only strange defect in the field is that he has to see the players on the board. He cannot imagine games in his head.
This one talent makes the youth insufferably arrogant. Like many stupid people, he treats everyone else with contempt, but is careful to engage only people on his intelligence level, knowing that if someone were to try to speak on any subject out of his league, he'd be at a loss. And since chess is the only thing he knows, any other topic of discussion would be beyond him.
At this point I have to wonder. Other than an idiot savant, is it really possible to be intelligent at only one thing? I would think that the mental skills required of chess strategy would transfer over into other areas.
Yet I do know some people like this. And I have found it a mistake to think that because someone is brilliant at, say, math, that they are interested or capable of delving into art, music or philosophy. Of course it could also be argued that someone like, say, me who is a professional musician is even slightly adept at math. I am very much a right-brained musician.
But for most of us, or at least a lot of us, we don't hold to any delusions of grandeur. We enjoy what we know, we accept what we don't and we are not so ignorant as to look down on others, or, as a couple of odious people I know, think that putting down other people would disguise a mediocre mind.
But that is a major digression. I merely wanted to relate what thoughts the first part of the novel provoked.
The story then takes a turn as the Austrian narrator relates how he and a group of men on the ship came to challenge the Russian Chess Master. It looked very bleak for them, made worse by the fact that the Russian was so insolent about beating them.
Then, out of the blue, another man who was watching the game started telling them where to go. I should mention the Russian would play and then walk across the room so the men could discuss among themselves their next move.
That game ended in a draw. Later the Austrian looked up the man who had helped them win. He was also from Austria. In his cabin he told his story.
He had been held by the Nazis to divulge information. This he refused to do. Their form of torture was to keep him in a room by himself without any stimulation. His only contact with others was during interrogations. He found this maddening, but one day while waiting to be interrogated, he came across a book on chess.
The man goes on to describe how he committed all the games to memory and when he became bored with that, he began playing games in his mind against himself. This eventually led to a form of madness. In fact he told our narrator that he feared if he played another game of chess, he would succumb to permanent insanity.
I'll stop there, but I must say what I value most about this story was the character sketches of both men. Both suffered from a type of mono-mania, but for different reasons and their outcome was dramatically different as well.
There's so many things to analyze in this story. The Russian man was free but limited by his mental narrowness. The Austrian man was brilliant and his imprisonment stretched his mind to even greater heights, but at the cost of his own sanity.
This story will stay with me for a long time.
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