Zweig: A Chess Story and a dramatic death

by Sergio Ernesto Negri
6/27/2018 – One of the most popular writers in Europe — the most translated in the interwar period — Stefan Zweig escaped the Nazi regime as a prominent writer. Since he thought Hitler's threat would spread throughout the world, he emigrated repeatedly and visited South America several times, considering the continent "a promised land". An admirer of Argentina, he finally settled in Brazil, where he died in 1942. In this article, SERGIO NEGRI reviews his extensive and successful literary work, including the one that has chess as its fundamental protagonist, "Schachnovelle".

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"When you receive this letter..." 

The great Argentine writer Abelardo Castillo (born in 1935) profoundly appreciates Stefan Zweig's (1881-1942) following description of his beloved chess:

...the only game that belongs to all nations and all eras, although no one knows what god brought it down to earth to vanquish boredom, sharpen the senses and stretch the mind.

This beautiful characterization was written by the prolific author, who was born to a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna, capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His life was as interesting as it was hectic. 

Vienna 1898

The Hohe Markt in Vienna, signed and dated Stillfried 1898, watercolour on paper (click or tap to enlarge) | Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

PostcardDuring World War I, he moved to Salzburg (where he sent the postcard at right in 1927), but due to his pacifist philosophy he ended up living for a few years in the more neutral Zurich — later he would return to his home country. His literary career, which he embraced from an early age, was brilliant. It has been stated that in the interwar period he was the most translated writer and, probably, the most widely read of his contemporaries, at least in Europe.

The advancement of Nazi Germany changed things dramatically for everyone, and he was no exception. His written work reflects how strongly he condemned such a political experiment based on terror. Given his stance, he saw it necessary to flee to London in 1934, where he acquired English citizenship. The capital of the island was nevertheless bombed, which encouraged Zweig's decision to immigrate to America.

Zweig became a great traveler. He made some visits to South America, which included two to Argentina (in 1936 and 1940), a country he first considered "a promised land" — later, he would appoint this title to its neighbour Brazil. There, the renowned journalist Bernardo Verbitzky, who dedicated a book to the writer, would interview him.

His first visit to Buenos Aires left him slightly unsatisfied, as he was worried about the dense political climate created by those for and against the Spanish Civil War. Thus, he opted for the more peaceful and cheerful image that he perceived in Brazil, specifically its capital Rio de Janeiro. Having fallen in love with that country, he dedicated a whole book to its charm: Brazil, A Land of the Future. The book sold well but received negative feedback from critics, who considered it excessively acquiescent and agreeable with the prevailing political system. This deepened Zweig's ongoing depression, which provoked his moving to the neighbouring city of Petrópolis.

Petrópolis, north of Rio de Janeiro, with its forested peaks and waterfalls, it’s known as a mountain retreat for Rio residents

However, sunk in depression and victim of an ever-increasing persecutory delusion (he believed the Nazis would invade the world, including Brazil), he took a decision, which was as erroneous as it was extreme: to commit a double suicide with his wife.

Zweig

Zweig with his wife after committing suicide in 1942

book coverIt was in Petrópolis, his last residence, where he wrote Schachnovelle. He included these words in his farewell letter to his first wife:

Dear Friderike, when you receive this letter I will be much better. In Ossining you saw me better and calmer, but my depression has worsened, I feel so bad that I can no longer concentrate on my work. Add to this the sad certainty — the only one we have — that this war will last for years and that it will be a long time before we can return to our home.

"When you receive this letter I will be much better" is a great irony, as he was well aware that by then he would already be on the other side. Zweig did not get to see that, shortly after his departure, Brazil abandoned neutrality by declaring war on the Axis powers. Similarly, he would not see that shortly afterwards the regime that provoked his delusion would finally fall. He was not patient enough to wait. Zweig left his life with a bitter taste, believing that the worst of evils simply could not be avoided.

The fatal casualty extinguished the couple's existence and Zweig's fame as a writer. His life was a drama with a certainly not pleasant outcome. Nevertheless, he died in the place he chose, the same place where he conceived one of his masterpieces: a novel about his beloved chess, a work considered a cornerstone of his legacy.

Other chess references in his books

His body of work was abundant, very influential, and appreciated, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s. He covered all possible genres: poetry, theatre, novel, short stories, and biographies. In all of them, chess is mentioned repeatedly.

We can begin with his autobiography, written in 1941, The World of Yesterday:

"...chess only found grace in our eyes due to the fact that it requires mental effort".

About Jakob Wassserman (1873-1934), the writer who produced Caspar Hauser or the Inertia of the Heart, Zweig pointed out:

The artistic constructions no longer obey exclusively to beauty, but to the laws of gravity. They have stability, while the preceding novels were rather fluctuating, like the coloristic glide of clouds or dreams. Especially in a criminal story, where a fleeting suspicion increases the avalanche of fatality, we admire the mastery of artistic counterpoint: as in the game of chess, where one move is made to counter another, and in a firm and unavoidable enclosure life is imprisoned within a frame of fatality, everything happens with the need of the spontaneous, which is entangled intrinsically again and again following the immanent purpose of destiny.

In Mental healers: Franz Anton Mesmer, Mary Baker Eddy, Sigmund Freud, he reproduced the following statement originally written by Mary Baker Eddy:

But, the same way the ravages of smallpox were limited by the vaccine little by little, we can also immediately give check to this 'disorder', to this 'bad habit' of the alleged disease and the presumed death.

In a letter dated April 14, 1940, in which he talks about a sea trip, he assures that all the ambassadors of the Havana Conference (to be held at the end of July, and where the Monroe Doctrine was going to be discussed) were his chess opponents at some point in time.

Also in his correspondence, registered in this case in Stefan and Lotte Zweig's South American Letters: New York, Argentina and Brazil, 1940-42, he is depicted playing chess with his second wife, Lotte Altmann, whom the writer reproached for not making enough progress. It is also mentioned that he used to play against eventual visitors.

When describing a regular day in Petrópolis, specifically November 10th, 1941, he writes:

...a delicious Brazilian coffee in the morning, then work and reading in the gallery, a colonial lunch, a chess game, a walk and work again...

He also points out that, in his spare time, he plays through some masters' games taken from a big chess book.

At his house, located on Gonçalves Dias Street, he placed an immense black and white mosaic chessboard as a clear homage to his last novel — and to his passion for the game.

Zweig's house

Zweig's house in Petropolis | Source: petropolis.rj.gov.br

His biographical novels included chess references repeatedly. Following the characters' chronological order, but not necessarily the dates of the publications, we can begin with Erasmus of Rotterdam, where chess makes its first appearance in a political and religious context:

But by this time, Luther stood no longer alone. Without any active desire on his part, perhaps without even realizing what his initial efforts were leading to, he had become the exponent of our many-sided terrestrial interests, the battering-ram of German nationalist aspirations, and an important piece on the political chessboard in the game between the pope, the emperor, and the numerous German princes.

In the same book, referencing Frederick the Wise, protector of Luther, who also had Erasmus as a counsellor, at a time when the prince of Saxony had not yet decided whom he would support to become the leader of the religious reform, Zweig states:

As with Erasmus, so with Frederick: the Elector did not receive the reformer, so that in case of need he might be able to declare: 'Personally, I have had nothing to do with him.' From political motives, however, and because he saw that this vigorous peasant might well serve his turn in his schemes against the emperor, and, furthermore, out of particularist pride in his powers of jurisdiction, he had so far held a protective hand over Luther’s head, so that in spite of papal pronouncements of outlawry the Augustinian continued to preach from the pulpit and still held his university chair.

When analyzing Erasmus' legacy, noting that he died approximately at the same time Machiavelli's The Prince appeared, Zweig states the differences between these two thinkers:

A prince, or a leader of a State, had no business to be dreaming dreams about humanity, that vague and intangible concept, but should reckon quite unsentimentally with men only as the concrete material which should be utilized with all its forces and its weaknesses to the personal advancement of the prince and of the nation he governed. Clearly and coldly, with as little consideration as a chess-player towards his partner, a prince should go his way, and by every means permissible and unpermissible, ensure the utmost advantage and dominion for his own people. Power and expansion of power were for Machiavelli the supremest duty, and success the decisive justification of both prince and people.

In Conqueror of the Seas: The Story of Magellan he inserts the game in the saddlebags of expeditionaries, showing how chess made its entrance into America for the first time, after having been modernized  in Europe, and before returning to the Far East. In a scene that takes place on the Coast of Malaysia, Zweig writes:

Sequeira, delighted to hear that matters were to be arranged so quickly, did actually send the boats of the four largest vessels, strongly manned, to collect the goods. He, being a Portuguese nobleman who regarded mercantile transactions as beneath his dignity, remained on board, to play chess with one of his comrades, as the most agreeable way of passing the long hours of a hot day on shipboard.

The scene continues and the protagonists seem serene, as they do not notice that the locals are preparing a furious attack against the boat. Meanwhile, a sailor hurriedly returns from another ship that was sent ashore to warn the captain about the situation, and finds Sequeira "tranquilly playing chess" while "several Malays stood behind each of the players, ostensibly watching the game, but each of them with a kris ready to hand." Sometimes it is not very convenient to be caught by the enchantment of the game... The captain kept his composure: "...not wishing to disclose uneasiness quietly continued his game, but he commanded one of the seamen to take an outlook from the masthead, and kept his own sword-hand ready."

Another allusion to the game in this book takes on the form of a parable: Since this unimportant Magellan, though he had seemed no more than a pawn in the diplomatic game of chess, was, after all, not so easy to defeat..." Thus, Alvaro da Costa "boldly tried a move of check to the king." Da Costa dared to ask the king to hire someone that had been rejected in a previous expedition. And we already know what happened afterwards.

In Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles, which tells the story of Mary Stuart and her permanent rivalry with her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England, Zweig again uses chess as a metaphor:

What Elizabeth looked upon as a carefully thought-out game of chess, a diplomatic issue demanding the utmost intellectual exertion, was for Mary a delightful entertainment, an enhancement of joy in life, a chivalric tourney.

In Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman, chess is mentioned several times. First, to portray an encounter with the queen:

It is only a pity that there is no way for an important character to be willing to play her role in comedy: precisely the protagonist, the queen. But it is not possible to continue this dangerous game for a long time without introducing her into action, because you cannot deceive even the most credulous person by making him believe eternally that the queen has greeted him, if she, in fact, looks away when having that abhorred man in front of her and never speaks to him. Every time this happens, the danger grows, as the poor nitwit gets closer to discovering the trick. Undoubtedly, it is necessary to resort to a very used chess move. As it is naturally discounted that the queen will never speak to the cardinal, will not it be enough to make that fool believe that he has spoken with the queen?

Marie Antoinette by Joseph Ducreux

Marie Antoinette by Joseph Ducreux | Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Later we read, "...the king and the queen could lead a quietly comfortable and almost peaceful life. In the morning, Marie Antoinette comes to her children and instructs or plays with them; at noon they eat together; afterwards, they play a game of backgammon or chess." As we know, chess has been the preferred form of entertainment in the courts, from the Middle Ages onwards.

Alluding to tormented personalities, specifically Dostoevsky, Zweig includes in Three masters: Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky some of the metaphors used by the Russian: the murderer with blood-stained hands, the drunkard being laughed about, the epileptic child begging on street corners, and "the player, given to his vice, stuck between checks that hurt."

Besides his final novel and the biographical works we covered already, the Austrian brought up the game in two other novels, highlighting its role as a conventional activity in social environments. For example, in Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman a character that "in the night, for an hour, played chess with us" is mentioned.

book coverWe find chess more often in Beware of Pity, as these five examples show:

"The only amusements left me were the cafe or the patisserie, where, since the stakes at cards were usually too high for me, I was reduced to playing billiards, or chess, which was cheaper still"; "I shall go often to see that poor sick girl, shall even take the trouble to see that I always have something diverting or agreeable to tell the two of them; we’ll play chess together or pass the time in some other pleasant way"; "As a doctor, I have to remain a sober chess-player, I dare not become  a gambler, least of all when someone else has to plank down the stakes"; "Do you think I should have gone on coming, that I could have sat playing chess and dominoes with you, or listening to gramophone records, if I had had the slightest notion of what was going on?"; "I just see the ladies to the door. In the meantime you two can start your game of chess."

In the course of this game, a tense situation arose:

Would you care for a game?, I was able to ask Edith in a casual tone. I'd love one, replied Edith, lowering her eyes as the others left the room. She kept her gaze fixed on her lap as I got out the chessboard and set out the pieces, methodically, so as to gain time. As a rule, in order to decide who should start I held a white and a black chessman behind my back, one in each fist, according to the rules of the game. But this method of deciding would have necessitated the uttering of the word 'Right' or 'Left', and even this one word we avoided by tacit agreement. We must avoid speaking at all costs! All our thoughts must be imprisoned within this chequer-board with its sixty-four squares, our eyes must be riveted on the pieces, not even on the fingers that moved them! And so we simulated that absorption which is characteristic only of the great masters, who forget everything around them and concentrate their whole attention on the game. Very soon, however, the game itself gave us away. Edith’s play broke down completely. She made a number of false moves, and from the way her fingers twitched it was obvious that she could endure the strained silence no longer. In the middle of the third game she pushed the board away.

In Buchmendel, he compared the protagonist's bibliophile memory with Lasker's ability to remember gambit openings.

book coverIn Joseph Fouché: Portrait of a Politician, Zweig mentions a psychological description of Napoleon made by Fouché:

...he can no longer feel the slightest emotion, the slightest satisfaction, while receiving the uniformed palatines in the galas of the courts, elegantly dressed, listening to boring deputies. No, he no longer feels his nerves vibrate unless he is heading his troops, marching forcefully, rolling over countries; when he destroys whole armies, when he removes or appoints kings with a scornful gesture, as if they were chess pieces...

Another mention in the same book: "What a pity! A small incident spoils this magnificent and exciting chess game", referring to a supposed diplomatic agreement that had been signed with England without the Emperor's endorsement.

A further reference is cited when describing Fouché's decline:

Observing who once was the omnipotent ruler of the French Empire, seeing how sad and lonely he was, noticing how happy he felt when an employee started a conversation or requested to play a game of chess, I thought instinctively about the fickleness of all earthly power and greatness.

In Brazil, Land of the Future, when talking about the Multi-Ethnicity seen in that country (the term Multi-Cultural had not been introduced yet), Zweig exaggerated: "Even the game of chess with all its millions of combinations, not one of which resembles the other, seems poor compared with the chaos of the countless mixtures which inexhaustible Nature has produced here in four hundred years." Immediately afterwards, he adds: "But if, in chess, no one gambit resembles another, the game itself always remains chess, for it is limited to a certain space and to the adherence to certain definite laws."

Schachnovelle

After having covered Zweig's extensive body of work, it is time to address his extraordinary Chess Story (Schachnovelle in the original; also translated as The Royal Game), written a year before committing suicide with his wife. In a way, we can consider the leading character as his alter ego, given that he reflects a troubled state of mind, filled with deep dark thoughts, the kind that can lead, precisely, to a suicide.

The obsessive neurosis of Dr. B —the hero of the story— held by the Gestapo, is easily comparable to the author's sentiment, who saw the expansion of Nazism as irreversible. Even his arrival to the distant Brazil, where he thought he would find peace, was not enough to free him from paranoia.

Zweig, who enjoyed a comfortable economic position, was able to move wherever and whenever he wanted, but always found reasons to consider himself persecuted: due to his pacifist stand, due to his Jewish origin, due to him being considered a voice that rose against German rule. Therefore, he started travelling all around the globe, looking for the best place to reside.

His legitimate concern resulted in paranoia, which eventually took him to the paroxysm of suicide, a decision that was as unexpected as cruelly fatal.

Dr. B went through a similar journey (although he did achieve a sort of escape). An Austrian lawyer, he is incarcerated by the Nazi regime for the crime of not revealing a list of wealthy clients he used to advise. He is subjected to permanent emotional stress: they do not torture him, they do not attack him, they just let him live in confinement, in the boundless emptiness of days and nights.

They try to debase his psyche with a much more sophisticated system than the one used in the brutal concentration camps. He is isolated, deprived of sensory experiences. It is the worst punishment that can be inflicted on his restless personality.

A lucky circumstance helps him dispel the boredom. An oversight of the guards allows him to steal a book from a coat, which happens to be a chess manual. He reads it, memorizes it, and reproduces the 150 problems it contains. He finds a way to escape from the absence of meaning that surrounds him. Chess gives him a refuge in the innermost depths of his mind.

Zweig movie still

Film still from Brainwashed (Schachnovelle), Allied Artists Pictures, 1961

Of course, another poison had been inoculated. He left one confinement, but fell into another, that of his mind, which will become obsessed with a game that, after proving to be an efficient escape, will turn into a newfound prison.

His new occupation divided his mind in two, as he used one side to play with White, and the other to play with Black. He tried to dissociate them so that each one ignored the intentions of the other. Hours, days, and months passed, until he was liberated. The external imprisonment concluded, but not the confinement created by his chess obsession. He needed to recover his mental health. Not without efforts, he would finally manage. He had to forget all about chess, permanently.

On a boat trip to Buenos Aires (remember that Zweig initially considered this the promised land), Dr. B witnessed a series of games that matched the World Champion, a Croatian named Mirko Czentovic, against some of the travellers. Czentovic was a monomaniac and arrogant genius — the author depicts this feature of many notorious chess players, particularly one that would arrive to the scene some time later, the American Bobby Fischer.

The lawyer, as the story evolves, ends up playing against the champion, making a return to chess, something that was absolutely contraindicated. He should not have relapsed into an obsession that had been so difficult to renounce. He made the worst mistake, not by making some erroneous move, but by deciding to play again. Dr. B is once again at risk of allowing his whole mind to be caught in chess. This obsession is comparable to that of Zweig himself, who could not get rid of thoughts about the unstoppable Nazi expansion throughout the world.

Returning to the author's real life, at this time he leaves the joyous and friendly Rio de Janeiro to seclude himself in the more circumspect Petrópolis, a decision made largely due to the anguish and displeasure caused by the criticisms of those who accused him of being a panegyrist of President Getúlio Vargas (who was leading an authoritarian regime). It is evident that by moving to Petrópolis, Zweig put himself in a kind of self-exile, going into a confinement similar to the one lived by Dr. B.

In the novel, the chess games that take place on the ship can be described as classic parables: the duality that lies between freedom and coercion; between civilized world and totalitarianism; between the human and the inhuman. Moreover, between good and evil, given that, according to some philosophies, they are present in equal measure in the human species.

Returning to the story, everything begins on an ocean liner that sails to Buenos Aires. On board, we meet a "rare bird", none other than Czentovic, the world chess champion, who was heading to Argentina "for fresh triumphs". He is cloistered in a single idea — he was monothematic, as we already mentioned. Regarding this trait, the author states, "The more one limits oneself, the closer one is to the infinite". On the other hand, he is also portrayed as the prototype of a genius kook whose "ignorance was just as absolute in every other area", with the exception of his unique capacity over the board.

He was an outsider to the intellectual world, "a dull, taciturn peasant lad". He lived inside a shell, and hid his personality avoiding any kind of conversation. This way, "no one will ever be able to boast of having heard him say something stupid or of having plumbed the depths of his seemingly boundless ignorance."

Under these conditions, he reached the pinnacle of the chess world, and despite all his shortcomings — or perhaps thanks to them — he became a presumptuous man. "This lad has just one piece of knowledge in his blinkered brain — that he hasn’t lost a single chess game in months — and since he has no idea that there's anything of value in the world other than chess and money, he has every reason to be pleased with himself."

Zweig, not only referring to the peculiarities of this chess player, but also to those of the human kind, states:

Yet how difficult, how impossible it is to imagine the life of an intellectually active person who reduces the world to a shuttle between black and white, who seeks fulfillment in a mere to-and-fro, forward-and-back of thirty-two pieces, someone for whom a new opening that allows the knight to be advanced instead of the pawn is in itself a great accomplishment and a meager little piece of immortality in a corner of a chess book—someone, someone with a brain in his head, who, without going mad, continues over and over for ten, twenty, thirty, forty years to devote all the force of his thought to the ridiculous end of cornering a wooden king on a wooden board!

As we already know, a group of players, in consultation, loses pathetically against the champion Czentovic. Eventually, however, the aforementioned Dr. B gains prominence in the story when he joins the group, indicating the correct sequence that leads to a draw in the rematch.

A face-off is suggested, and the mysterious opponent nervously accepts, aware that he had not played chess for almost twenty-five years. The doctor had not forgotten the chess book that had served as an escape from boredom, nor had he forgotten the crumbs of bread and the square quilt that he had used as pieces and board.

Recall that in captivity, he had managed to reproduce the games thanks to the skills developed by his obsession. He did not need the quilt nor the crumbs, he could do it all in his brain. And he was happy, as he described:

For suddenly I had something to do—something meaningless, something without purpose, you may say, but still something that nullified the nullity surrounding me; I possessed in these one hundred fifty tournament games a marvelous weapon against the oppressive monotony of my environs and my existence.

This split, between White and Black, the mental stunt that saved him from litany in captivity, irreversibly led him to a bottomless abyss, to a sort of "chess intoxication" (which was present during wakefulness and sleep), to schizophrenia, to a state of alienation very difficult to leave behind. He had left chess aside, until the trip to Buenos Aires, where, unexpectedly, by agreeing to face the champion, he risked a very dangerous relapse.

During the game with Czentovic, the champion reflects on his moves while his rival — who apparently had everything under control — becomes increasingly impatient, not because of the position on the board, but due to his state of mind. He began to move as if he were in the room of confinement. The past was coming back!

The lawyer startlingly wins, and, breaking his promise, he accepts a rematch. During the second game, his behaviour changes (that sickly impatience!), and, what is worse, the traces of delirium return. Luckily, a confidant, who knew the doctor's story, quickly brought him back to reality, warning him about the imminent danger. So that was, fortunately, the last chess game he would ever play.

Different interpretations

Regarding Zweig's powerful plot, the renowned American professor George Steiner (b. 1929) claims that the author focuses on chess as a close ally of madness. Steiner is very startled by the fact that the protagonist, in the hermetic confinement of a hotel room, uses chess as the final link with reality, when usually the exact opposite is true. He emphasizes the schizoid aspect of the game of chess, when he states:

What else exists in the world other than chess? A stupid question, but one that every true chess player has asked himself at least once. And the response — when reality has been contracted to sixty-four squares, when the brain becomes a luminous blade that points singularly to a set of hidden lines and forces — is at least uncertain.

Jacques Dextreit and Norbert Engel, in Jeu d'échecs et sciences humaines, provide a completely unexpected analysis: Dr. B playing in seclusion against himself reflects the masturbatory drive produced by chess. The character learns to play by himself and assumes both roles in imaginary games (he is the player and his rival).

Despite the darkness they found in Zweig's story, the French researchers accept the fact that the game's attractiveness is undeniable: "It is the only one among those devised by man that escapes sovereignly any tyranny of chance and bestows the laurels of victory exclusively to the spirit, or better yet, to a very distinctive form of mental acuteness."

The Frenchmen highlight, as Abelardo Castillo had done before, a question posed by Zweig that is only apparently rhetorical:

Is it not also a science, an art, hovering between these categories like Muhammad’s coffin between heaven and earth, a unique yoking of opposites, ancient and yet eternally new, mechanically constituted and yet an activity of the imagination alone, limited to a fixed geometric area but unlimited in its permutations, constantly evolving and yet sterile, a cogitation producing nothing, a mathematics calculating nothing, an art without an artwork, an architecture without substance and yet demonstrably more durable in its essence and actual form than all books and works, the only game that belongs to all peoples and all eras, while no one knows what god put it on earth to deaden boredom, sharpen the mind, and fortify the spirit?

Another analyst, the German professor Albrecht Classen, accurately deems Zweig's novel as a perfect reflection of the irreparable damage caused by the oppression of a totalitarian regime, in this case the Nazi regime. Under these circumstances, chess might become a temporary relief, but never a definitive solution! The author's own suicide, unfortunately, serves as evidence of the fact that neither the game nor literature sufficed as lifelines for someone who saw his soul and psyche — his existence — corroded by human malevolence.

El LibroTwo well-known Argentine authors — cartoonist Jose Muñoz (b. 1942, the year of Zweig's death) and screenwriter Carlos Sampayo (b. 1943) — paid tribute to Chess Story when conceiving El libro, originally published in Paris in 2004. The plot is centred on chess, specifically a chess book: the one written by the Austrian author. The comic book approaches the subject with strongly expressionist drawings and a very appropriate dark-tone narration. The action takes place in Argentina between 1942 and 2002.

The story is filled with references to historical episodes that show the extraordinary instability of a country damaged by weak democratic governments and ferocious military dictatorships. While these political wobbles take place, chess is seen as a safeguard of neutrality —or at least isolation if you ignore what happens outside the board.

The main character (his surname is Huergo) is a middle-aged man, a bookseller and collector of original German literature who, besides being a passionate chess player, is looking for a first edition of Chess Story, a book that at some point was part of his personal library. That copy had belonged to a wealthy old German Nazi who had escaped, like many others (maybe even Hitler if we believe the hypothesis of him not having really committed suicide?) to Argentina. In fact, the text mentions a submarine that had a swastika printed on it, and alludes to Adolf Eichmann's capture in the South American country. It also mentions another German who, in the 1940s, by planting pines, gave shape to the beautiful Atlantic city known today as Villa Gesell.

Precisely in that seaside location, things start to unfold. A box full of books disappears, and starts to go around: Huergo and his former business partner get it, amongst others — including the people in charge of a Jewish library in Berazategui, a town in the province of Buenos Aires. The story includes many Argentine cultural references, from complete lyrics of tango songs to a street graffiti that read, "Let everything go", during 2002, when the country was amidst a devastating crisis.

Muñoz and Sampayo also reference chess repeatedly: a mate-in-six situation is presented, a bookshop is named "The bishop", a game that features a King's Indian Defense, and so on. In addition, the lead character laments his luck at one point by saying, "I am nothing, neither a chess player nor a merchant."

Moreover, the protagonist only had two talking points: chess (he would eventually set up a chess school, which helped him survive for a while) and German literature. Precisely these two subjects are integrated into the coveted copy of Zweig's book, which hid a powerful secret inside. To uncover the secret, it was necessary to know that a large amount of Nazi money had been preserved in a bearer cheque that was under guard in Switzerland.

Thus the paradox: inside a book written by an author that had been persecuted by the Nazis, with a plot that centred on a character that had been imprisoned by the terrible Gestapo, a document had been preserved, which comprised the wealth of a Nazi sympathizer.

Hence, Zweig's book gives name to another work — conceived in a distant land — El libro, a combination of words and images produced by Muñoz and Sampayo. These two creations are merged together as the beautiful final sentence expresses: "I hope I can die while reading the final lines of Zweig's book. Despite being a dilettante, that man possessed a truly unusual talent."

Stefan Zweig's "unusual talent" led him to live a novelized life, and to write the best Chess Story that could ever be conceived.


Postscript — June 29th

The Uruguayan researcher and chess player Héctor Silva Nazzari after the publication of this work provides quite relevant new information: A long time ago the Argentine professor César Corte (biography) told him that, when Corte interviewed Zweig in one of his visits to Buenos Aires, the Austrian writer said to him that, at the time of designing the character of Czentovic, he had had as a model the extraordinary Czech player Salomon (Salo) Flohr.

Translation from Spanish: Carlos Colodro


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Sergio was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is Master FIDE, who developed studies on the relationship of chess with culture and history.
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TigerHP TigerHP 6/28/2018 10:41
Wonderful article. My reading list got longer.
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