Between the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017, I suffered through what I refer as ‘the longest reading slump’ period, for about three months. I tried everything to get over it, as any book lover would do, from trying to read different books to read in other languages and finally, I decided (rather had to) suffer through it. That is when a good friend of mine suggested Chess Story by Stefan Zweig. To be honest, he had been selling it hard for a while and it took me a while to pick the book. Boy, was I surprised!
Chess Story begins with the narrator, an Austrian, boarding the ship that travels from New York to Buenos Aires. On board is, Czentovic, the World Chess Champion who spends his time challenging the other travelers in a game of chess and earning a bit of money. The passengers come together to play against him and still lose. We learn about Czentovic’s humble beginning and how he reaches his heights by sheer brute force and hard-work. He is unapologetic, unfriendly and boorish. He understands what is at stake when he plays every game and plays to show off his supremacy over the game.
During one of such games in the afternoon, a mystery man called Mr. B manages to help the group win an upset against Czentovic. Mr. B is a noble Jewish banker who is humbled by his wartime experiences. During the World War II, he was restrained by the Gestapos him between the walls of his cell, interrogating for information regarding the wealth of his clients, his only companion being a stolen anthology of 150 chess games. He reads and memorizes the moves and that became obsession later mania to get him through his period of imprisonment.
Intrigued and miffed by Mr. B’s act, Czentovic challenges him to play the royal game against him. which forms the rest of the story. I sure hoped for Mr. B to win the game with his ingenuity and supreme intelligence, against the unfriendly and boorish World Champion – you know ‘let the underdog win’ argument? But I would just warn you already, prepare for the twist and a depressing ending. I think it is now safe to inform the author committed suicide just weeks after he finished the novella. So be warned.
Someone said that the mark of a good book is it changes every time you read. I can safely say Chess Story is definitely one of such books.
For someone who reads the book for the first time, it is a story between the blacks and whites of Chess Story board, where there are no grey shades. The hard work vs the tacts. The lyrical prose, despite being a translated work, will make you compelled to read it again and it being just an 84 paged novella would help. But sometime during my second reading (shortly after Christmas, yeah just days before this review), I found another layer unraveling itself. It became more than the game, but of the personalities that clashed between. Zweig’s understanding of human nature is spot on. And knowing about his death made it all the more difficult to digest the ending, despite knowing what was going to happen.
I cannot gush enough about Chess Story and I have recommended the book to far too many people now. If you want to move on to literary fiction but do not know where to start, or want to read something that would not put you off those kinda books – Chess Story is your answer. It is, for me, a perfect novella with complex characters and a beautiful prose.