Keeping the Nazis in check


By Stefan Zweig

Chess is probably one of those stories that gets deeper on subsequent readings. I’ve only read it the once, but I can tell from its psychological approach that it is worth much more than its 76 pages would have you believe.

The plot is about two things: a game of chess played on a transport ship somewhere between the US and Latin America, and the way one of the players learnt chess during his time incarcerated by the Nazis. The story, however, is much deeper. Chess is about how we react to our environment, how plastic our brain is, and yet how some experiences can leave our brains with live wires that explode when touched.

Zweig has crafted a very clever political analogy here – he’s taken on the Nazis, and dictatorships in general, and he’s used chess to show the effect such regimes can have on our minds. On the one hand it seems obvious. Chess is, after all, a game of logic and reasoning, of mind control, of intimidation. But on the other hand, the way Zweig does it is seemingly very original and always compelling.

I must admit that his technique of telling half of the story through the direct speech of one character, similar to almost the entirety of Heart of Darkness, felt a tad outdated. But as a book of its time (it’s 70 years old), I can let that pass. Especially because it’s otherwise flawless

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