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At the opening of this amazing fiction, a cadaver is discovered, the body of a wealthy businessman from Vienna, apparently a suicide without plausible motivation. Next to the body is a chessboard made of rags with buttons for pieces whose positions on the board may hold the only clue. As the plot of this passionately colored, coolly controlled thriller unfolds, we meet two chess players—one a clever, persecuted Jew, the other a ruthless, persecuting German—who have faced each other many times before and played ...
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At the opening of this amazing fiction, a cadaver is discovered, the body of a wealthy businessman from Vienna, apparently a suicide without plausible motivation. Next to the body is a chessboard made of rags with buttons for pieces whose positions on the board may hold the only clue. As the plot of this passionately colored, coolly controlled thriller unfolds, we meet two chess players—one a clever, persecuted Jew, the other a ruthless, persecuting German—who have faced each other many times before and played for stakes that are nothing less than life itself.
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.
Legend has it that when the game was first presented to the court, the sultan decided to reward the obscure inventor by granting any wish he might have. The recompense requested seemed modest: the quantity of wheat that would result from putting a single grain on the first of the board's sixty-four squares, two grains on the second, four on the third, and so on.
At first the sultan gladly agreed, but when he realized that all the granaries of his kingdom, and perhaps of all the world, could not supply such an amount, he found it advisable to extricate himself from his predicament by having the poor inventor's head cut off.
The legend doesn't mention that the sovereign later paid an even higher price, becoming so enthralled by the new game that he lost his mind. The mythical inventor's greed, it turned out, was equaled only by that of the game itself.
Today's papers report the death of a man in a village not far from Vienna. Yesterday, Sunday morning, one Dieter Frisch succumbed to a gunshot wound. The medical examiner's report sets the time of death at 4 a.m., the result of a pistol shot fired at very close range, the bullet piercing the palate and exiting through the occipital lobe.
The newspaper accounts are accompanied by a recent photo of the deceased, shown relaxing in the grounds of his villa like a country squire just back from his daily walk. Dressed in light-colored linen, lounging in a wicker chair, he seems to be extending a hand to pet one of the two dogs huddled at his feet. I look at that picture and find it hard to recognize the face, shadowed as it is by the brim of what looks like a lightweight Panama hat. Is a man's physiognomy no more than an assemblage of mass and weight, the contours of a muscular structure? Or is there something more enduring, lying unchanged beneath the relentless layerings of time? Can it be that the person I knew lurks hidden beneath that name and that countenance? Only after a few moments' concentration do the features stored deep in my memory reemerge, like a transparency superimposed over that face eroded by age yet somehow still stubbornly youthful.
The headlines make much of the passing of this "eminent personality," but say nothing about how it actually happened. Under pressure from the family, staunchly opposed to the hypothesis of suicide, nearly all the papers speak of an "accident," "mishap," or death in "mysterious circumstances." Whatever the evidence may be, it becomes worthless in the absence of a plausible motive. Everyone who knew him seems prepared to swear that he had absolutely no reason to take his own life. He had never been depressed or listless. His latest checkup, a recent one, gave him a clean bill of health, and he was in enviable shape: at the age of sixty-eight still active in his favorite sports, tennis and horseback riding, despite a slight limp ever since an operation after an injury caused by a fall from a horse. Nor was there any hint of financial trouble. In fact, a few days ago he won a multimillion-dollar construction contract from the Bundesbank.
Frisch was one of those people upon whom fate seems to smile in every domain. He married a rich heiress and had four sons, all of whom now hold prominent social positions. He led a well-ordered, quiet life, spending four days a week in Munich managing his own business and returning on Friday to Vienna, to be driven to the place where he liked to spend all his free time: a villa ringed by a vast park in turn surrounded by a 125-acre game preserve. The property, built late in the eighteenth century, has long been a tourist attraction, open to the public in summer. Visitors are allowed to view the stud farm and stroll through the grounds, a true masterpiece of gardening and water management designed more than a century ago. The highlight is a concentric maze of ten-foot-high hedges leading to a chessboard-shaped clearing paved with squares of white and black marble. On opposite sides of the board, chess pieces have been painstakingly sculpted by pruning thick shrubs as tall as a man. The black pieces are of yew, the white of boxwood.
Like most people his age, Frisch was a creature of habit. On his three days a week in the villa he awoke promptly at seven-thirty and spent exactly five minutes in an indoor cold-water pool, followed by some calisthenics and a ritually meticulous toilet. At about eight o'clock, properly dressed, he would descend to the spacious sitting room for a frugal breakfast served on fine china: a cup of unsweetened black coffee and some whole-grain toast with a touch of marmalade. He would then withdraw to his study to spend the rest of the morning on his great passion, chess. He owned everything that had ever been written on the subject and boasted a precious collection of antique sets. Though he had not competed for years, he still held a master's ranking and was the editor of an authoritative chess magazine.
All evidence suggests that nothing ever impinged on his routine until that last Friday night. His driver picked him up at the station in Vienna as usual. They exchanged only a few words on the way back to the villa, where they arrived in the middle of the night--at a quarter to one to be exact. (The driver was always careful to time the trip.) Frisch got out of the car and, as always, went first to the dogs' compound, where he petted each of his "puppies," soothing their enthusiastic welcome. He then went into the house. Just as on every Friday.
But as early as Saturday morning his elderly housemaid noticed something strange in her master's behavior. Frisch looked as though he had slept little and badly. In fact, the woman was ready to swear that if he went to bed at all, he had not even undressed. Accustomed as she was to a clockwork household routine from which she herself took the greatest solace, she was alarmed by this sudden change in the master's habits.
Devoted servant that she was, however, she felt it was not her place to say anything to anyone, not even the other members of the staff. Nor did she inform Frisch's wife, partly because the couple occupied different wings of the villa and led what were effectively separate lives, appearing together only at rare official functions. According to the housemaid's account, Dr. Frisch ate no breakfast that morning, and his lunch, served at the usual hour, was returned untouched on the tray.
He seems to have spent the whole day alone in the house, receiving no visitors. Only when our witness came to serve him dinner in his study did she notice that a lamp had been turned on. It was still on when she fell asleep, at about two in the morning.
Well after eight o'clock on Sunday morning there was still no sign of Frisch. Concerned about the unusual delay, the maid went upstairs to the bedroom. Finding it empty and the bed not slept in, she thought at first that the master had spent the night elsewhere, though such was not his wont. She began to get suspicious when she saw that none of the cars was missing from the garage. She then knocked repeatedly at the study door, calling to him loudly. When she got no reply, she decided to go in, but found no one there. At that point she felt she had no choice but to wake Frisch's wife, a step not wholly without risk, since the lady of the house suffered from insomnia and was probably just then enjoying her first real repose.
The entire staff was soon mobilized to scour the twenty-eight rooms, the cellars, and the guest quarters, an unsuccessful search that was also extended to the grounds. Finally someone thought of bringing in the master's dogs. His two beloved German shepherds had been barking constantly all morning. When the first was turned loose, he darted straight for the garden labyrinth; the second, leashed, led them unhesitatingly to the spot. Frisch's body, supine in its own blood, lay in the center of the maze; his old army pistol was recovered a few feet away. The weapon was fitted with a silencer, and no one had heard the shot.
They looked in vain for a note, but all they found on his desk was a chess set in a complicated mid-game position.
It was a very strange board: light and dark patches of coarse cloth sewn together. Buttons of various sizes represented the pieces, symbols for each having been crudely scratched into the faces, apparently with a nail.
Of all the newspapers reporting the scene discovered by the first witnesses just one, a provincial sheet possibly short of firsthand information, commented on this apparently insignificant detail. Its article concluded: "No one will ever know why Dr. Frisch chose such a rag from his precious, renowned collection. Perhaps only to use it for his last match, with death."
None of the investigators suspected that the truth was shrouded in those vaguely melodramatic words. The strange chess pieces were of course dusted for prints, but removing them from the board obliterated what may have been the sole real clue--though I must admit it would have been hard to decipher.