It must be extremely difficult to write a historical novel because many have tried and most have failed. Many of the historical novels I have read were of the type, “What if he had lived?” Some concerned POTUS John F. Kennedy.
The last one read was years ago and it caused me to put other books of the type on the “back burner,” where they have since continued to smolder…It may have helped if the author could write, but he had as much business writing as I have running a marathon. The book was not one of those print on demand tomes which allow anyone to publish a book nowadays but a book published by an actual publishing company, which means there was an editor who must have thought the book good enough to earn money. I found the book, a hardback, only a few weeks after it had been published and it was marked down to a price low enough for me to take a chance and fork over the cash. P.T. Barnum said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” In a way the editor was right, but then, marked down enough anything will sell.
There have been notable historical novels such as Michael Shaara‘s masterpiece, The Killer Angels,
which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974.
It must be terribly difficult to write a novel about people who actually lived. A novelist invents a character. To write historical fiction about an actual living, breathing human being is another thing entirely.
Having recently returned to the city of my birth meant a visit to the local library, which happened to be selected as the 2018 Georgia Public Library of the Year. After renewing my lapsed library card I went to the catalog that very evening to check on, what else, Chess books. I had been pleasantly surprised when seeing the latest issue of Chess Life magazine in the reading room of the Decatur branch of the Dekalb county library system after obtaining my new card. While surveying the Chess books a jewel was found, a book I recalled being published years ago, but not in English. It was published at the end of the last century by the author of The Luneburg Variation,
It was his first novel, published at the age of fifty, and it was a good read. The book about which I will write is, Theory Of Shadows,
published in Italy in 2015. It was published in the US by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2018 after being translated by Anne Milano Appel.
From the front inside jacket: On the morning of March 24, 1946, the world chess champion, Alexander Alekhine – “sadist of the chess world,”
renowned for his eccentric behaviour as well as the ruthlessness of his playing style – was found dead in his hotel room in Estoril, Portugal.”
There it is, a fictional account of how Alekhine died. The last paragraph on the jacket reads: “With the atmosphere of a thriller, the insight of a poem, and a profound knowledge of the world of chess (“the most violent of all sports,” according to the former world champion Garry Kasparov), Paolo Maurensig’s Theory of Shadows leads us through the glamorous life and sordid death of an infuriating and unapologetic genius: not only trying to work out “whodunit,” but using the story of Alexander Alekhine to tease out what Milan Kundera has called “that which the novel alone can discover.”
I loved everything about this book. The book begins with this quote : “If Alekhine had been a Jew hating Nazi scientist, inventor of weapons extermination and therefore protected by those in power, then that intellectual rabble would have held its breath. Instead, the victim had to drain the bitter cup to the last drop…Even the supreme act of his death was vulgarly besmirched. And we cowards stifled our feelings, remaining silent. Because the only virtue that fraternally unites us all, whites and black, Jews and Christians, is cowardice.” – Esteban Canal
After reading the above I had yet to begin the first chapter yet had been sent to the theory books…OK, the interweb, in order to learn who was Esteban Canal. “Esteban Canal (April 19, 1896 – February 14, 1981) was a leading Peruvian chess player who had his best tournament results in the 1920s and 1930s.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esteban_Canal)
This was also found:
Who was Esteban Canal?
Writing in a 1937 edition of Chess Review, Lajos Steiner,
who knew Canal when they were living in Budapest, said that Canal never reached the heights his talent deserved. He was awarded the IM title in 1950 and received the honorary GM title in 1977.
Not much is known about his life and what little is known is wrapped in a cloud of mystery. Canal himself claimed to have been a cabin boy on a cargo ship carrying wheat from Australia, but it has proven to be impossible to verify dates. It is known that he had an extensive nautical knowledge and sailors.
In 1955 the South African player Wolfgang Heindenfed, writing in his book Chess Springbok, An Account of a South African Chess Player’s Experiences Overseas wrote of Canal, “The grand old man of Italian chess is Esteban Canal, originally of Peru, who at the age of 57 won the 1953 Venice tournament to which I had the good luck of being invited. He is one of the most interesting and amusing of all chess personalities. Formerly a roving reporter, he speaks six or seven languages and still treasures mementos of such VIPs as Kemal Pasha and Abd el Krim. He is an inexhaustible raconteur of chess stories.” (http://tartajubow.blogspot.com/2018/03/who-was-esteban-canal.html)
About a third of the way through the one hundred seventy nine page book we read: “Though it was an essential task, armchair analysis of the matches he’s played in the past often bored him. Without the presence of the human element, the pieces on the chessboard lost their vitality. It was quite a different matter to play with an opponent in front of you: to enter his mind, predict his strategies by interpreting the slightest variations of his posture, the position of his hands, the subtle though significant contractions of his lips. During the period when he worked for the Moscow police, they had taught Alekhine how to interpret small signs such as these during interrogations, to see if their subjects were lying.”
During an interview, after discussing the murder of his brother at the hands of the Soviet communists as retribution of Alekhine leaving “Mother Russia” the interviewer asks, “And you never feared that you might suffer the same fate?”
“You mean being killed?”
The journalist nodded.
He hesitated a moment, then: “Perhaps, yes, now and then, the thought’s occurred to me.”
“After all,” Ocampo said, a little heavy-handedly, “Trotsky himself, despite taking refuge in Mexice, was ultimately hit by a hired assassin.”
“I took my precautions.”
For a time Alekhine was silent. In fact, he knew very well that it was not strictly necessary for a victim to be close to his murderer, that there was no place in the world where one could be assured of finding a completely secure refuge. A well-trained hit man could strike even in broad daylight and in the midst of a crowd.”
I’m thinking, “Just ask JFK…”
Jews and Chess:
“That was the first time he’d faced a Jewish chess player – it would certainly not be the last. He would endure a stinging defeat by Rubenstein
in the first masters tournament in which he competed. He was eighteen years old then, and, encountering that young man, some years older than him, who was said to have abandoned his rabbinical studies to devote himself to chess, he’s had to swallow several bitter truths. Later on, he played against Nimzowitsch,
soon realizing that, in his rise to the world title, his competitors would all be Jews.
Their faces were still sharply etched in his memory: Rubinstein, dapper, with a drew cut and an upturned mustache and the vacant gaze of a man who has peered too closely into his own madness; Lasker, with his perpetually drowsy air and spiraling, hopelessly rebellious hair; Nimzowitsch, looking like a bank clerk who, behind his pincenez, is haughtily judging the insufficiency of other people’s funds’ Reshevsky, resembling a prematurely aged child prodigy. Often he imagined them muffled up in long black cloaks, gathered in a circle like cros around a carcass, intent on captiously interpreting chess the way they did their sacred texts.”
Near the end of this magnificent book it is written, “By then, the harbingers of what in the coming decades would be called the Cold War were already looming. And if the weapons of the two blocs were to remain unused, it was essential that there be other arenas in which they could compete and excel. Chess was therefore, as ever, a symbolic substitute for war: gaining supremacy in it was a constant reminder to the enemy that you possessed greater military expertise, a more effective strategy.”
In beating the Soviet World Chess Champion Boris Spassky in 1972 Bobby Fischer won much more than a mere Chess match.
Bobby emasculated the Soviet Communist regime. Alekhine may have taken a brick out of the wall when leaving Mother Russia, but Bobby Fischer took the wall down.
Being a novel within a novel made the book was a pleasure to read and I enjoyed it immensely. I give it the maximum five stars.