Sunday, March 9, 2008

A Tale Of Two Chess Novels

A while back I read Katherine Neville’s The Eight. One could describe it as a chessplayer’s The DaVinci Code. Indeed, several of the reviewers at compare the two and imply that Dan Brown’s 2006 smash hit was heavily influenced by Neville’s book published in 1990.

My opinion of The Eight could be summed up by saying: great opening, but it went downhill to the endgame. The Eight is a bit long for those with limited attention spans, 550 pages in hardcover. The underlying concept is great - a historic and present-day crusade to find and reunite the pieces of a magical chess set - but the characters and plot degenerate into what I would describe as “a bunch of people running around.” I think the strength of the treasure hunt genre is that the main characters bring expert skill and knowledge to the truly testing parts of the climax. In the homestretch of "The Last Crusade", Indiana Jones not only solves the riddles and traps, but he makes the process of struggling to solve these the center of the stage. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare a book to a movie, but the climax of The Eight just seemed like so much “and then they went there and did this.” Perhaps if she had made the protagonist an actual chess player and given her some chess problems to solve, it might have satisfied my desire for merit in the protagonist instead of apparently dumb luck all the time.

There also seems to be a problem of bumbling villains. They don’t seem particularly clever or distinguishable from each other, and the “good guys” don’t have much trouble dispatching them. It is here that Dan Brown did one better and characterized a many-tentacled Opus Dei with coolly efficient Captain Fache, rich and connected Bishop Aringarosa, and terminator-like Silas. What is Indiana Jones without Dr. Belloq?

I really liked the weaving of chess history and culture into the beginning of the story. It was fanciful to think that chess played integral parts in the French Revolution and the Oil Embargo. I like the flowery descriptive portions of Neville’s work such that I feel deprived not knowing what certain plants smell like while driving on coastal roads. I have to agree that she paints excellent pictures with her words, such that I was transported to the places she described and craved a glimpse at the marvelous chess pieces. But in the end, the weak plot resolution left me disappointed.

Today, I read Ronan Bennett’s 2007 Zugzwang. I walked into the public library to return some books and my eyes were drawn to two titles, Endgame Enigma which turned out to be a sci-fi novel with apparently only a tangential relationship to chess, and Zugzwang which seemed to be just what I was looking for.

I picked up the book at 3pm at the library and read all 269 pages in essentially one five-hour sitting. Whereas The Eight is written in the historical context of the French Revolution, Zugzwang is written in the prelude to the 1917 Russian Revolution against the tsar with the primary historical event being the 1914 St. Petersburg chess tournament, won by Emanuel Lasker.

The main character is a psychoanalyst who meets all manner of devious characters while mingling among the bourgeoisie, exorcising their psychological demons, and trying to evade wrongful prosecution from several different police entities. Of course one of his patients is the stereotypical near-autistic chess master, made into one of the least interesting characters by his incompetent and clichéd existence. Certainly, the female characters seem less important here than the ones in The Eight. On the one hand, they hold the plot together, easing the fantastic connections of the central characters (Adhesive and lubricant?) But sometimes, they seem little more than potboiler material. (Yes, there is sex in this book.) The villains and allies seem complex in their intersecting schemes, but in a way, they begin to seem like clones of each other, crossing and double-crossing everyone like the round robin tournament that is the backdrop. But at least they are competent, respectable villains, not the bumbling kind found in The Eight.

Compared with The Eight, Zugzwang certainly contains less flowery detail about places, colors, and the general smell of the place, but with the added perception of the psychoanalyst’s lens, the latter’s characters seem much deeper.

Best of all, there is an ongoing correspondence game throughout the book which I appreciated as a very finely conducted endgame involving zugzwang with both queens on the board. Unfortunately, the diagrams that followed the game had some awful errors, but the endgame is still decipherable to the seasoned chess amateur. While The Eight has voluminous chess references that seem almost shoehorned into the text, Zugzwang makes up for quantity with the quality of sparingly and appropriately used chess references.

In summary, both books interlace regicidal portions of history with chess-related murder mysteries. I think the problem with The Eight is that it became too ambitious with too many settings and the added dimension of treasure hunt genre, such that the ending became too unwieldy to tie up. Zugzwang was much more tautly written with more interesting psychological struggles and better plot execution. The Eight I would coolly recommend with reservations of not getting your hopes too high about the plot. I wholeheartedly recommend Zugzwang especially for (adult) chess players.


chessloser said...

some great book reviews. now i think i might wanna read "the eight"...but first i have to read "the yiddish policeman's union."

ChargingKing said...

Hey Ernie

I think I will be playing in the Far West next weekend. I think Reno could do well this year and take the team title. I'm going in with the mindset that I can win my class!

Good luck against those IM's and FM's!

Wahrheit said...

Yes, I remember reading The Eight and I think your review is spot on--interesting, but not "tight" enough to hang together well. I'm ready to read Zugzwang based on your recommendation, thanks!