“Yet one doubt remains: could I count on your complete desire to win, or would you yield to the temptation to flatter me by playing beneath your level, simply to guarantee yourself a life of comfort? I therefore decided that we required a stake. Whoever puts up a stake, no matter how small, cannot permit himself the luxury of sloppy play.”
A chess playing master Frisch is found dead at his home. He leads a life of order and control and his death is a mystery. But as the story of his last journey unfolds a tale of hatred, fear and the holocaust unfolds. The key to the story is chess. After initial misgivings, given my last game of chess was when I was a teenager, the story itself does enough to grab you.
As the narrator tells you of how he wandered through chess clubs trying to get the attention of the mysterious Tabori a relationship is formed that initially helps the young man fulfil his chess ambitions. But as his master lies dying in hospital he is tasked with fulfilling a mission that prevented Tabori from playing the game he loved for forty years.
At that point the young man enters Frisch’s train carriage on the man’s last journey home and tells the old man a story that finally overlaps with his own. The final pieces of the jigsaw are left unsaid and I’m not going to spoil the plot but needless to say justice is served.
The reason this book leapt out from the shelves was the blurb that described Maurensig as a great writer. He is good but the puff might be slightly over blown. At the start this is sold as some sort of murder mystery and the fact it is much more than that and has a great deal more to say about human cruelty doesn’t emerge until some readers might have lost interest which is a shame.
This starts feeling like a murder mystery novel with a top chess player found dead at his home. But it quickly moves into other territory. You fear that you might need to know stuff about chess as the story moves into talk of grand masters and learning moves but the characters that Maurensig describes carry it through. As the end game begins you want to know where it goes.
Although this book comes from an author living in Italy and the action is set in Vienna the location is not perhaps as important or as pronounced as other European literature. That’s because the action and the moves largely take place on a chess board which is a plain of action that is of course not fixed to a single location.
Final half of book and overview in a review soon…