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 A polished and subtle first novel, published in Italy in 1993, that details with Nabokovian cunning the working-out of a ``sickening design'' during WW II and for long years afterward. Maurensig's complex story begins with the information that a prominent Vienna contractor, Dieter Frisch, has been found dead, an apparent suicide, in the center of a topiary maze resembling a huge chessboard. Then we're told that the (unidentified) narrator has engineered Frisch's death, which was ``an execution, albeit deferred in space and time.'' Next, we follow Frisch on his habitual train journey homeward (and chess game with a fellow traveler), observed by a polite young kibitzer, who introduces himself as Hans Mayer and tells Frisch the lengthy story of his own passion for chess and his apprenticeship to an older ``master,'' the pseudonymous ``Tabori,'' whose patient tutelage of Mayer has climaxed with this very encounter. At this point Tabori (who, we realize, is Maurensig's omniscient narrator) tells the story of his own privileged upbringing, early fame as a chess prodigy, and life- altering match with a blatantly anti-Semitic opponent whom Tabori (born ``Rubinstein'') would meet again in 1938, dressed in a Nazi SS uniform. The remainder of the novel recounts Tabori's sufferings during the war, his internment at Bergen-Belsen and forced series of rematches with his old antagonist, now a camp commandant. Readers will be reminded of William Styron's Sophie's Choice on learning of the ``stakes'' for which Tabori was made to play. Even so, he survived the liberation of the camp, lived to find the man he went on seeking for decades (whose identity has long since been apparent), and at last brought their rivalry to a close. And that's all. We never return to Hans Mayer or to the actual events of Dieter Frisch's death, but are instead left to infer the crucial climactic details of a novel whose serpentine ``variations'' leave the reader simultaneously enthralled and frustrated--in effect, stalemated.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-374-19435-1
Page count: 160pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 1997


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