Furst meets Nabokov: an atmospheric blend of historical fact and detective-tale speculation against the backdrop of international chess.
First published in 2015 in Italy, this story is of a piece with Maurensig’s debut, The Lüneburg Variation (1993), in which Nazism meets the game of kings, with events reverberating long after the end of World War II. The story centers on Alexandre Alekhine, a Russian chess master whose antipathy toward Bolshevism led him to cast his lot with the Nazis. To what extent is a matter of much back and forth here, but Alekhine does not protest overmuch when Josef Goebbels, on playing a game with him, calls him a “friend of the Reich.” Ah, but then, Alekhine uses a defense in his game that owed to a Jewish predecessor, thinking it a fine irony that “right under the eyes of Reichsminister Goebbels, a Jew should poke his head out, grinning irreverently and making fun of them all.” Alekhine’s story unfolds through the eyes of a curious investigator, Venezuelan by birth, Italian by nationality, Portuguese by descent, a student of chess who considers Alekhine “a tutelary deity” but blanches at his awful anti-Semitism. More than 60 years after the fact, he travels to Portugal, where Alekhine had found himself marooned after the war, to look into the grandmaster’s death. Was he, as investigators held, the victim of accidentally choking on food? Passing himself off as a journalist, the protagonist finds other possibilities, including a carefully developed plotline that places Alekhine against the backdrop of the newly emerging Cold War and a vengeful Joseph Stalin. For Alekhine, even facing that fateful last supper of beef stroganoff, the game extends beyond the chessboard, a matter of cat and mouse to the end: “Deny, always deny, even in the face of the most glaring evidence.” Maurensig could just as easily have written this as a work of nonfiction save that his narrative frame allows him to play freely with alternative theories.
A pleasure for fans of literary mystery—and of chess as well.