April 08

The Mystery of Jewish and Aryan Chess

Alex Epstein

Translated by Becka Mara McKay. Special thanks to Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature

Writer Alex Epstein’s enigmatic short fiction has been hailed by Israeli critics as reminiscent of Borges and Kafka. Certainly, many of his stories can be read as ironic, philosophical parables. The following story reveals Epstein’s concern with the history of European antisemitism, but with his trademark playfulness intact--fitting for a story about a game played on 64 alternating dark and light colored squares. The souls of chess greats, like the notoriously antisemitic (and Jewish) Bobby Fischer, sometimes seem to be riven into an opposition of black and white. Perhaps the fate of chess prodigies is to have their sanity cleaved by the adversarial game they play. As George Steiner noted, a skilled chess player suffers a kind of schizophrenia, always “inside his opponent’s skull, seeing himself as the enemy of the moment, parrying his own moves.” The narrator of this month’s story is similarly possessed by the endless possibilities of movement. And here his melancholic monomania is focused on a spectral antagonist, the antisemitic Russian-born grandmaster Alexander Aljechin.

- Adam Rovner, Translations Editor

1. Opening

It’s true, there’s no shortage of reasons to travel to Paris, but as fate would have it, two weeks ago I started to write my great Israeli novel.

And I’d already completed the first chapter, in which the hero, who turned his back on his faith, discovers that his father, who banished him, has died from cancer on the Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers. And then the travel agency called to say that the tickets were ready. If that’s the case, I said to myself, on the banks of the Seine I am sentenced to write the second chapter, which takes place in a crowded cemetery.

2. Aryan Chess

I flew via Istanbul--but nonetheless I arrived (one night passed, and then another night. I wrote two words: “alarm clock”). During my last day in Paris, after another disappointing visit to Père-Lachaise Cemetery (not a living soul), I went into a used bookstore not far from Place Anderson. As I stared at a pile of comic books rising from a chair in a corner of the store, one pamphlet caught my eye--it seemed different, thicker: it was a bound collection of editions from March 1941 of the Pariser Zeitung, a daily German-language newspaper that had been published in France.

I flipped through the volume back and forth, and here, in an edition from the middle of the month, was an unmistakable headline:

Jüdisches und arisches Schach, eine psychologische Studie
Alexander Aljechin

Why, this was in fact one of the Nazi newspapers that in ‘41 published a series of articles by Alexander Aljechin, the pre-eminent French-Russian chess master. In this article, Aljechin proved, through analyses of Jewish chess players’ matches, that they were inferior to chess players of the Aryan race: their game was opportunistic and cowardly (Aljechin, by the way, didn’t know what he was talking about). Without a trace of fear I filched the pamphlet, but we will get to that.

In the margins of every page of the article were notes in French, in blue ink: a list of chess moves beside short, obscure sentences that ended with exclamation points or question marks. I tried to reconstruct the game in my head. Of course, after three moves I was completely baffled, and skipped to the end of the article, to at least clarify who won the match, black or white. I read the final note:

46…Knight h4-g2. Endgame!

3. The Author’s Note

Here it is necessary to point out that some readers, to whom this story was delivered for review before its publication, saw fit to note that the clue at the end of the previous chapter was too transparent. Others, on the other hand, claimed that this clue, if it is indeed a clue, is not clear at all. To both of these I am willing to say, Gentlemen, mankind includes women and vice versa, thus it is in life: assuming that you ask someone what he did on such-and-such date, and he, without thinking twice, answers, “Damned fog. The clock never chimed. If only it had chimed…” But let’s leave this and continue with the story at hand.

4. Jewish Mate

They say that every date with the muse is a blind one. But to this meeting in the bookstore, nonetheless, I did not arrive empty-handed. I remember, from a wonderful book that I once read--a book describing the final days of famous chess masters--that Alexander Aljechin died in a hotel in Portugal, during the evening between the 23rd and 24th of March 1946, under suspicious circumstances. Some are of the opinion that he was poisoned at the hands of the Resistance: Aljechin’s name, according to some, appeared on the blacklist of a secret branch of the Resistance, which continued, after the war, to eliminate those who collaborated with the Vichy government.

And here, in my hands, ink on paper, possible proof of this.

A bookplate was glued to the inside cover of the volume of newspapers--a Cross of Lorraine that tilted a little to the left. Below it were initials, undoubtedly the name of the earliest owner of these booklets: HCA. Immediately I glanced through some of the other items in the pile from which I had grabbed the Pariser Zeitung--it became clear to me that these other comic books displayed this same ex libris. Pieces of a mosaic began to arrange themselves in my imagination. The picture of a man of the Resistance, chess master and comic-book enthusiast, Aljechin’s murderer, whispered a single word in my head, sweeter than any other: “novella.”

5. Close

I had to hurry; I took advantage of the shopkeeper’s lack of attention--he was paging passionately through some ridiculous (and illustrated) botanical dictionary and had been sipping--could it have been otherwise? --Pernod. I concealed the pamphlets under my sweater. During the return flight to Israel I began to write as though possessed by a dybbuk. Immediately upon landing I called the travel agency again. They told me that this time it was cheaper to fly through Budapest. After a few days I finally abandoned writing the great Israeli novel in favor of a partially historical novella that took place in Florence. Meaning Munich. Meaning Odense. In Belgrade? Or maybe in Lisbon; why, there’s no shortage of reasons to travel to Rome.

Zeek's Hebrew translations are made possible by a grant from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, supported by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency. Please direct submissions and queries to editors[at]zeek.net
“The Mystery of Jewish and Aryan Chess” (Ta'alumat HaShach HaYehudi V'haShach HaAri) from Blue Has No South (stories) [Le-Kachol Ein Darom (Am Oved, 2005)]. Copyright in the original Hebrew © Alex Epstein. English translation © Becka Mara McKay. Published by arrangement with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.


Images by Irene Helitzer.


Alex Epstein was born in Leningrad in 1971 and moved to Israel in 1980. He has published three novels, three collection of short stories, a book of poetry, a children’s book, and two novellas--one in digital form. He was awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize in 2003. More of his work can be found here.

Becka Mara McKay is a poet and translator. In 2006, her poetry was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her translation of Suzanne Adam’s novel Laundry [Kvisah (Keter, 2000)] is forthcoming from Autumn Hill Books.