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Original Issue


The author is considered one of the finest and most subtle short-story writers to emerge during the thaw in Soviet literature that prevailed for roughly a decade following the death of Stalin in 1953. His back-ground, typical of his generation of Soviet intellectuals, bears heavily upon the content of his work. His parents were arrested during the devastating purges of the mid-1930s, and at the age of four he was placed in one of the notorious Soviet "Homes for Children of the Enemies of the People." His mother, the Jewish writer Eugenia Ginzburg, survived 18 years of prison, concentration camp and exile to write a chilling memoir, "Journey info the Whirlwind," which, like much of her sons current work, has been banned in the Soviet Union. Chess recently has been classified as a sport, but in this surrealistic story, now translated into English, Aksyonov uses a chess game to mirror a whole lifetime and its grim associations. His contest has no winner.

The Grand Master and a chance traveling companion played a game of chess in the compartment of an express train.

As the Grand Master entered the compartment, the man immediately recognized him and felt a sudden twinge of desire for an impossible victory over a grand master. Casting furtive, probing glances at the Grand Master, he thought: "Who can tell what may happen? What's so special about the guy? He looks so scrawny."

The Grand Master realized right away that he had been recognized and resigned himself: he was stuck now for at least two games. He knew the type—he had caught sight of the steep pink brows of such people often enough outside the windows of the Chess Club on Gogol Boulevard.

As the train started moving the Grand Master's traveling companion casually turned toward him.

"How about a little game of chess?" he said in a tone of affected innocence. "What do you say?"

"Well—all right," the Grand Master muttered.

The traveling companion leaned into the passage, hailed the woman conductor and asked for a chess set. As soon as it appeared he, with a haste that belied his casual air, dumped the pieces out of the box, picked up two pawns and held them up to the Grand Master concealed in his fists. On the bulging muscle between the thumb and index finger of his left hand were tattooed the initials G.O.

"Left," the Grand Master said. His lips twitched slightly: he was imagining the blows those fists could deliver, both left and right.

The Grand Master drew the white.

"We have to kill time, don't we?" G.O. was purring good humoredly as he set the pieces on the board. "There's nothing nicer than a little game of chess when you're traveling, don't you think?"

They rapidly went through the opening moves. Then somehow everything became confused. The Grand Master was watching the board tensely, but the moves he was making were minor, rather irrelevant. Again and again, lightninglike trails for his queen flashed before his eyes, trails that would sweep him toward a mate. Yet he blotted out these flashes by lowering his eyelids, responding to a faint, nagging, inner buzz like a mosquito's.

"You're brave, my friend, but your house is a dump. I'll give you my dagger...." G.O. hummed monotonously.

The Grand Master was a picture of neatness in dress, the epitome of sobriety in manner, but underneath he was a vulnerable man, unsure of himself. He was still young. He wore a gray suit, a light shirt and a conservative tie. No one but the Grand Master himself knew that his ties bore Dior labels. That little secret somehow had the power to give him a feeling of warmth, to cheer him up. His glasses, too, were helpful in hiding from outsiders the uncertainty and shyness in his eyes. There were still his lips, however, that could not be hidden, for that, alas, was against accepted custom. He hated them for the way they had of twitching and stretching into pitiful little smiles.

G.O.'s way of playing surprised the Grand Master and depressed him. On the cluttered left side of the board, the pieces were snarled in knots, forming crude imitations of cabalistic signs. G.O.'s moves were like the tuning up of a third-rate brass band, like grim yellowish-gray snow, like a cement factory. The whole left side of the board emitted a smell of latrines and disinfectant, together with the sour tang of barracks and wet kitchen rags. And then, also from early childhood, came a whiff of castor oil and diarrhea.

"You are Grand Master so-and-so, aren't you?" G.O. asked.

"That's right."

"Ha-ha-ha! What a coincidence!"

Why coincidence? What coincidence can he be talking about? Unbelievable! How could this ever have happened? I give up, please allow me to resign—panicky thoughts flitted through the Grand Master's head. But then he realized what was going on and smiled.

"Yes, of course, of course."

"You're a grand master, but I'm forking your queen and your rook," G.O. said, raising his hand. His perfidious knight hung over the board.

A fork in the behind! the Grand Master thought. Some fork! His grandfather had his own personal fork and never allowed anyone else to use it. It was his private property: private fork, spoon, knife, private plate and a portable spittoon. There was also that heavy winter coat with the special kind of fur lining. The coat hung by the door but Grandpa never went out. Grandpa and Grandma were forked. Too bad to lose the old folks.

While the knight was hanging over the chessboard, the Grand Master again saw the lightninglike trails that, by expedient sacrifices, would open up his opponent's strongholds to his attack and lead to mate. But, alas, the piece in G.O.'s hand, the horse's head with the dirty bit of purple felt coming unstuck from its base, was so real that the Grand Master shrugged.

"So you're sacrificing your rook?" G.O. asked.

"What can I do?"

"You're sacrificing the rook to mount an attack, aren't you? Have I guessed right?" G.O. said, still hesitating to place his knight on the fateful square.

"I'm simply moving my queen out of the way to save it," the Grand Master mumbled.

"Are you setting a trap for me?" G.O. asked.

"Oh, no, not at all. You're simply a strong player."

G.O. then cashed in on his precious fork. The Grand Master hid his queen in a little corner behind a veranda, the half-collapsed veranda of a stone house, with carved decaying pillars. In that corner, in the fall, it smelt of fusty maple leaves. You could squat there comfortably and wait it out. It was good there, because at least your pride couldn't be hurt. Then he rose for a moment from behind the veranda and saw G.O. removing his rook.

The intrusion of the black knight in the middle of the mindless crowd of pieces on the left flank, its occupation of the Grand Master's QN4 square, was in itself a matter for serious concern.

The Grand Master realized that in this position, on this green spring evening, the myths of his youth wouldn't do. Lovable fools like cabin boys called Billy, cowboys called Harry, beauties called Mary and Nellie, may well roam through a world in which a brigantine sets her sails. But there comes a moment when one feels that threat from the real proximity of a black knight on his QN4 square. He was faced with a struggle—complex, subtle, absorbing and intricate. Life was ahead of him.

The Grand Master captured an enemy pawn, took his handkerchief out of his pocket and blew his nose. During the few moments of perfect privacy, while his nose and lips were hidden in the handkerchief, his thoughts wandered off into anodyne philosophizing.

You strive and strive for something, and then what? You're after it all your life and finally you win—victory is yours. But then happiness still does not come...or take Hong Kong, a city so far away and mysterious...well, I've been there. I've been everywhere, and....

In his position, the Grand Master thought, Petrosian would have already resigned.

The loss of the pawn didn't worry G.O.: he had just captured an enemy rook, hadn't he? He responded by moving his queen in a way that gave the Grand Master heartburn and a twinge of headache.

The Grand Master saw that there were still some pleasures in store for him. There was, for instance, the joy of the long diagonal sweeps of his bishop: sliding the bishop ever so lightly over the board can replace, in some measure, the sliding of a skiff over the sunny surface with shady patches of that pond just outside Moscow—from sun into shade, from shade into sun. The Grand Master felt a passionate urge to take possession of square KR8 because it was a square of love, a hillock of love over which hovered transparent dragonflies.

"That sure was smart, the way you made up for that rook. And I fell right into it," G.O. said hoarsely. Only the last phrase betrayed his annoyance.

"I'm sorry," the Grand Master said very quietly. "Would you like to play the last few moves over?"

"N—no, I want no favors. I insist on following the rules," G.O. said. Intoning the song "I'll give you my dagger, my gun, and my horse," he plunged into strategic reflections.

The exuberant summer celebrations on square KR8 were filling the Grand Master's heart with joy but, at the same time, he was worried. He felt that there would soon be an accumulation of outwardly logical but inwardly absurd forces in the center of the board, that he would hear again the cacophony and there would be the smell of cheap disinfectant, as in those horrible faraway halls in the left wing of the building.

"One thing I'd like to know," G.O. suddenly said. "Why is it that all top chess players happen to be Jewish?"

"All?" the Grand Master said. "Take me, for instance, I'm not Jewish."

"Is that so?" G.O. said with surprise. "But please don't imagine I meant anything. I just said it, like that. I have absolutely no prejudice in these matters. I was just curious."

"And you, for instance," the Grand Master said, "you're not Jewish either, are you?"

"Ah, but I'm nowhere near in that league," G.O. said, and again plunged into his secret plans.

If I move here, he'll move there, G.O. thought; if I take this piece, he'll take the one over there in a couple of moves; then I'll counter like this, and he'll answer in that way.... But anyway, what's the difference? In the end I'll break him, finish him off. I don't care whether he's a grand master, or a ringmaster, or what—I've got more guts than he has. Besides, I suspect that all their championships and tournaments are fixed. Whatever he does, I'll crush him, even if it means giving him a bloody nose.

"Yes, of course, in that exchange I lost in quality," G.O. told the Grand Master. "But never mind, there's still plenty of daylight left for me."

He started his attack through the center and, as the Grand Master expected, the center immediately became a field of senseless and terrifying activities. No love here, no tender meeting, no hope, no warm greeting, no life. It was feverish chills, and again yellow snow, the hardships that followed the war, itching all over the body. The black queen was cawing in the center, cawing like an enamored crow, crow's love, and nearby a neighbor was scratching a tin bowl with a knife. Nothing could prove so finally the senselessness of life as this position in the center of the chessboard. It was time to finish this game.

No, the Grand Master thought, there must still be something beyond this.... He put on a tape of Bach's piano concertos to calm his heart with the pure sounds, smooth like the splashing of waves. He stepped out of the summer-house and walked toward the sea. Pines rustled overhead and underfoot the slippery needles felt resilient.

Thinking of the sea, imitating it, he started to analyze the position, to harmonize it. Suddenly everything became bright and clear. Logically, as in Bach, he saw moves leading to the mate of the black king. The mate position lit up faintly and beautifully, perfectly shaped, like an egg. The Grand Master glanced at G.O., who sat there stiffly, congested, turkey-like, staring deep into the Grand Master's rear positions. He had not noticed the impending mate. The Grand Master remained silent, afraid to break the enchanting spell of the moment.

"Check," G.O. said quietly and cautiously, moving his knight and making a great effort to keep down the lion's roar that was trying to burst out of him.

...The Grand Master let out a yell and fled. Behind him, stamping and whistling, the owner of the villa came running, Euripides the driver, and Nina Kuzminchna; and passing them all, just about to catch up with the Grand Master, was the dog Nochka that someone had let off the chain.

"Check," G.O. repeated, moving his knight into a new position and swallowing some air with sensuous delight.

...The Grand Master was being led along a passage through a subdued crowd. Someone walking behind him was pressing a hard object against his back. In front of him waited a man in a black military coat with the lightninglike insignia on his collar—SS. One step—one half second, another step—one second, another step—a second and a half, one more step—two seconds.... Steps going up. Why up? This sort of thing is usually done in a hole. I must be dignified. Must I really? How long will it take them to put that stinking burlap bag over my head? It has grown quite dark, it is very difficult to breathe and the only sound is a military band playing somewhere very far away.

"You're brave, my friend...."

"Mate!" G.O. shouted, sounding like a brass band.

"Well, you see...." the Grand Master said. "Congratulations."

"Oof!" G.O. said. "I've worked up a real sweat. It's something unbelievable. Who the hell would've expected it? Me cream a grand master—mate him! Incredible, but true!" He burst into wild laughter. "Rather clever of little me!" He patted himself on the head. "Ah, Grand Master, my dear Grand Master," he buzzed, putting his hands on the Grand Master's shoulders and giving him a hard, friendly squeeze. "You're such a fine young man, but I guess your nerves couldn't stand the pressure, right? Admit it."

"Yes, yes...I broke down," the Grand Master hastily agreed.

With a sweeping gesture, G.O. cleared the pieces off the board. It was an old chipped chessboard and in some places the polished top layer had peeled off, exposing the tired yellowish wood, and there were a few fragments of circular stains left from the glasses of railway tea that had rested on it.

The Grand Master was looking at the deserted chessboard, at the 64 perfectly indifferent squares that could absorb not only his life but an infinite number of lives, and that infinite succession of black and white squares filled him with awe and peace. I don't believe I've ever betrayed anyone in my life, he thought.

"If I told this to people, nobody would believe it," G.O. said, and sighed sadly.

"Why wouldn't they believe it? What's so incredible about it? You're a strong and forceful player."

"No one will believe it," G.O. repeated stubbornly. "They'll call me a damn liar. How will I be able to prove it to them?"

"Allow me," the Grand Master said, as if taken aback, looking at G.O.'s steep pink forehead. "I'll give you something that definitely will prove your claim. I had a feeling I would meet you."

He opened his briefcase and produced a round golden disk as large as the palm of his hand on which was engraved:

"The bearer has won a chess game from me. Grand Master so-and-so."

"All there is left to do is to engrave the date," he said, extracting an engraving tool from his briefcase and inscribing a beautiful date near the edge of the disk. "This is pure gold," he said, handing the disk to G.O.

"You're kidding!"

"It's absolutely pure gold," the Grand Master said. "I've ordered many disks like this one and I'll see to it that I always have an adequate supply of them."