This first novel ambitiously and awkwardly examines questions of guilt and forgiveness arising from the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II.
At a 1962 chess tournament in Amsterdam, Holocaust survivor Emil Clément is disturbed that his first opponent is the German Wilhelm Schweninger, a Nazi propagandist. His emotions and memories are jolted further when he is sought out in the Dutch city by Paul Meissner, an officer at Auschwitz who helped Clément and, after jail time for war crimes, became a priest. Chapters alternate between the strange bonds formed amid the horrors of imprisonment and the slowly growing friendship among the three men in 1962. To boost officers’ morale at Auschwitz, Meissner starts a chess club, but when he learns that the Jewish prisoner Clément is considered unbeatable, he arranges to have him face the camp’s best German players. After Clément defeats three, he is hounded by a Gestapo sadist who is also a top chess player. Schweninger has a minor role in the flashbacks: Germany’s best player in the 1940s, he was to have been the prisoner’s last opponent but was prevented from playing the game. In the 1962 chapters, Meissner is a Catholic bishop dying of leukemia who wants Clément to find forgiveness and to abandon his belief that there are no good Germans. The novel’s dubious setup, with Meissner so quickly corralling Clément and Schweninger, is offset by a fairly persuasive rendering of the camp, where the author uses the chess games to maintain an element of suspense in a situation in which death was almost inevitable—and clearly was postponed for Clément.
Donoghue, a Briton, is readable and well-intentioned, but plausibility frays in the number of bad guys converted to goodness and, unfortunately, in the notion that the bitterness Clément has harbored for almost two decades can be eased in several days of recollection and dying-man homilies. That’s quite a talking cure.