Skip to content
Words Without Borders is one of the inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winners!
from the November 2014 issue

from “Down, Beast!”

In 1952 Communist Czechoslovakia, a precocious thirteen-year-old from Brno is abducted by unknown assailants and brought to a secret location for what he believes is a special military training program for gifted youth. Instead his mission turns out to be tied to much darker ends, beginning with Stalinist show trials and ending with the day we now know as 9/11.

It was essentially something like a cloister. Except the building wasn’t square or rectangular, but perfectly round. In the center there was a courtyard surrounded by a circular ambulatory or arcade, that is, a colonnaded walkway with vaulted ceilings. Off the ambulatory, opposite the colonnade, were the doors to the individual cells, which were separated from one another by very thick partitions. Thus, each cell was wrapped in thick walls, like an oozing wound wrapped in bandages (which is why my earlier attempts to establish contact with the other inmates by tapping on the walls of my cell were doomed to fail). The whole round building, then, with its cloister cells and ambulatory and courtyard in the middle, was in turn completely encircled by another solid wall, a kind of protective sheath that kept me from seeing anything out of my cell window except a patch of sky.

But what intrigued me the most was the idea that there were people in all those other cells. Even if there was no sign of them. The whole place was nestled in thick drifts of silence. That was the most intense impression I had (after the initial flood of light), standing there on the threshold of my cell.

And yet I had a feeling there was something alive—anxiously but tenaciously alive—underneath those layers of monastic silence. I unglued myself from the threshold and walked across the hallway (having grown unaccustomed to wading through light, I walked unsteadily, like a blind man, hands raised and at the ready) through the columns of the arcade toward the courtyard, where I again stopped for a moment. It reminded me of nothing so much as the bottom of a well.

“At the bottom of my well, my shame doth swell,” came to me. But that was just an empty rhyme, because at the bottom of this “well” was a shaggy, cheerful lawn (a glorious Indian summer was just at its peak), in the middle of which stood a small table set with a teapot and two cups, and a plate with two slices of bread with butter and honey. The bald Grandmaster sat at the table, an empty chair across from him.

“Come, come, please be seated!”

I took two steps, staggering like a half-wit being brought out into the sun. And in fact the sun was blazing overhead, that most awesome of miracles, the miracle I had so long been denied.

And so for the first time I had breakfast with the man who for long after was to be closer to me than any other human being. My guide to the mysteries of life and death. But first let us begin with his role as Grandmaster.

As soon as we finished breakfast, he cleared the table and set up a chessboard. It was the first of an astronomical number of matches we were to play together. And that was basically the only way I spent my time there for an entire month.

I had never been a really outstanding or avid chess player, since I had never found anyone I could play with, at school or anywhere else, and the first thing that makes a game of chess really appealing is that face-to-face confrontation. But now that I had the opportunity, I made rapid progress. The Grandmaster guided me through a series of combinations that he knew would fascinate me and provide sustenance for my insatiable mind. Of course I had heard of the names Alekhine, Morphy, Capablanca, and the then-popular Botvinnik, as well as Petrosian (to whom the Grandmaster referred as “The Tiger,” and who he was convinced would one day be world champion), but it was only then and there that those names came to life for me and became my silent partners.

During that month of our intensive training sessions, I learned to play chess respectably well, and it occurred to me that maybe what I was undergoing (including the previous stage of my isolation in the dungeon) was some tried-and-true method from the Caucasus or Siberia for incubating international chess masters—the same way they used to turn children into freaks for circuses and vaudeville shows by squeezing them into twisted little boxes. And at the same time I started wondering if this bizarre cloister, which I took to calling The Well, wasn’t actually just a big hollow chess piece, a gigantic rook?

But something didn’t add up. If they had really wanted to train me to be a future chess master (and if that was the reason they had kidnapped me, locked me away in The Well, and put me through that torture of darkness and isolation), they would have had to start with me sooner than age thirteen. Not to mention the fact that my talent for chess wasn’t all that convincing. I took a certain pleasure in combination moves, just as I had always enjoyed mathematical puzzles, logical rebuses, and inventing all sorts of boyish games of my own. But I wasn’t some dynamic natural talent who just couldn’t live without chess. And I definitely wouldn’t have let someone bite off my thumb in exchange for the pleasure of a game of chess, as Jacques Plancheur did at the court of Louis XIII (as the Grandmaster once told me, in an exceptionally voluble moment). Besides that, I was starting to feel extremely disappointed: surely this couldn’t have been the mission I was dreaming of as I lay there cocooned in darkness! No, no, there had to be something else to it. The only tolerable explanation was that I was still just in a more advanced stage of preparation!

The Grandmaster and I played a long series of matches. At times you could say that he was practically guiding my hand, stopping me not only when I was about to make an outright blunder, but also whenever our game came to resemble some famous duel in chess history—Capablanca vs. Marshall, Spielmann vs. Réti, Kan vs. Botvinnik, or Alekhine vs. Euwe—and the move I was about to make threatened to send us down another path. But that was generally the only topic he ever brought up. Otherwise, our games were played in silence.

No doubt that was one of the reasons they chose chess for my training: I emerged out of the darkness into the light and the strictly confined world of the chessboard, but the silence remained. Despite my efforts to make sense of it, I failed to solve the puzzle of where it was heading and what stage awaited me next.

But here let me offer something for your amusement. One side effect of my daily training was that every night when I closed my eyes, all I saw were chess pieces. To the point that I even had erotic dreams in which the pieces lusted after each other, the bishops harassing the queens and the pawns engaging in mass orgies—and I would wake up with a wet frock.

It was probably mid-September. I could tell from various natural phenomena (that is, from the few I could perceive in my seclusion). So if they kidnapped me in the first half of August, then the first stage of my captivity, in which I was locked in a dark cell, must have lasted about a month. Darkness and isolation make time pass more slowly. I imagine all subterranean and deep-sea creatures must be intimately familiar with the experience of eternity.

Often during our chess matches in the courtyard I would turn my eyes skyward, gazing up at the blue circle carved into the dazzling heavens above The Well. I would instantly forget where I was, and the Grandmaster would have to poke me and bring my attention back to the chessboard. Sometimes I had the urge to say something about that magical sky, but I immediately thought better of it, the words freezing on my lips, as I realized how disdainfully they would be received. The moment the Grandmaster saw so much as a glimmer in my eye of the desire to speak about something other than chess, he gave me such a dismissive look that my fidgetiness dissolved instantly. I realized the Grandmaster would never respond to any question of mine that didn’t concern a smothered mate, the Evans Gambit, the Caro-Kann Defense, the Nimzo-Indian Opening, the Réti System, or the use of an advanced pawn phalanx.

But that sweep of round sky overhead offered me all sorts of delights during those matches of ours: overflying birds, errant butterflies, and often quite inventive configurations of clouds. Not to mention the occasional leaf—sometimes a whole shower of leaves—blown into The Well by the wind. Once there was even a little piece of paper, evidently scooped up by a strong gust of wind and tossed mischievously over our wall.

We were poring over an excruciating endgame, in which the Grandmaster had given me the opportunity to promote a pawn, when that little piece of paper began spiraling down behind the Grandmaster’s back. At first he didn’t know what had caused me to raise my head or what I was staring at so intently, but from the movement of my eyes he assumed it was probably just another stray butterfly. When the piece of paper flew over his head, however, and landed obediently in my hand, the Grandmaster grabbed my wrist and snatched it away from me. Only after turning it over and carefully examining both sides did he silently return it, having reassured himself there was nothing on it, so it was safe for me to see.

I confess that for some time after that I expected the profligate hand of the wind to throw me something that would reveal where The Well was located, where it was they had brought me. At least that much! But since I also spent a fair amount of time in my cell, the Grandmaster probably collected any calling cards the wind might have thrown my way before I had a chance to see them. I could vividly imagine him bending over nimbly to pick up the little pieces of paper, his darting bald head reflecting flashes of sunlight deep into the corridor.

One afternoon we were playing a long, serene Italian game, the kind the happy Italian chess masters of the early seventeenth century referred to as giuoco piano. We were immersed in that splendid isolation only the self-contained world of a chess match can offer, and, as always in those moments of deep concentration, I was fully absorbed in the sounds around The Well—barely perceptible sounds, like the movement of branches in the treetops and the bustle of rodents around the roots. At that moment, I realized I didn’t actually care where I was. So I stopped trying to figure out where it was they had taken me, and I began to feel guilty, even sinful, about my previous efforts to find out. Stop! I said to myself. After all, if the Grandmaster had wanted me to know, he would have told me himself. If he doesn’t, I’m sure he has compelling reasons. And even if he didn’t have any, I’d still be obliged to respect them. All I desired then was for him to know with confidence that I wanted only what he did. In other words, I had come around to the purpose for which I had been chosen.

More and more, I felt ashamed that I was still just a boy, not yet ripe for the task with which he was to be entrusted. How could I ever have had any doubt that my chess training was just another stage in my preparation? But everything in The Well was part of a grand and meticulously organized scheme, so if I doubted, I was undoubtedly supposed to doubt, although at the same time I was supposed to be ashamed of my doubt. And this only strengthened my attachment to the Grandmaster. Looking back at it today, I know that at that point I began to love him. At first with a quiet, clinging devotion, then with an unbridled filial love. Finally I had found someone on whom I could lavish my untapped stores of filial affection.

That was also their intent, from the very beginning. And that was precisely the reason they had chosen chess as a way to establish a master-disciple bond.

Chess is a kind of autism à deux and at the same time a model of life under totalitarianism: life subordinated to a single plan from which there is no escape. A game in which your every move takes place at the center of a force field, and every wrong move can have immediate fatal consequences. Chess is an emblem of irreversible fate, and it has always evoked the illusion that it contains the accumulated wisdom of the ages, as if you could learn something essential about life from it. Therefore, when someone teaches you chess intensively for a long period of time, it creates a powerful master-disciple bond between him and you, and under certain circumstances, that bond can turn into a fatal dependency. So, at the end of my chess training, I felt a religious reverence, so to speak, for every kilogram of the Grandmaster’s body lard, and I knew he meant more to me than my own father ever had. And at the moment when I had progressed that far, when my unspoken devotion to the Grandmaster began to radiate from my eyes, things shifted forward. Now do you understand? Things didn’t shift forward until something shifted inside me. At the time, of course, I couldn’t see it yet. Then something happened that suddenly awakened me to a completely different reality.

From Lehni, Bestie! © 2002 by Jiří Kratochvil. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Christopher Harwood. All rights reserved.

Read more from the November 2014 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.