Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Those baleful dusks

He continued to work with his Russian teacher, Andrescovich, but something had started to go wrong with the mechanism. The young Polish master stopped winning tournaments. Instead, he would always come second or third. These were anxious years, and the history of Poland, which had always been sad, seemed to be somehow embodied in this young man full of dreams. And what happens to young men like Ferenck, when they gain a certain fame and their personal lives get in a mess? They generally start to develop a weakness for hard liquor, which they justify by stress, or nerves, or those baleful dusks when the sky of Warsaw fills with a purple light, as if tongues of fire were swallowing the city and souls of its citizens, and then the glasses succeed one another on the bar counters, filled with transparent, highly concentrated liquids intended to counteract that complicated sense of abandonment in which the mind can find no rest, a glass, knocked back in one go, is followed by a second, then a third, and so Oslovski's hours started to darken and black clouds cover his soul, presaging bad weather.

— from Necropolis, by Santiago Gamboa.

I like this passage because if references the history of Poland. I've known a few Polish souls, tormented poets (I call them "poets" in a poetic sense) who, it might be said, also embodied that anxious, desperate, tragic history. Maybe you have to be Polish, or know Polish history at least, to fully appreciate what this means. Or maybe one can say similar things about citizens of countries all over the world — embodying the histories of, say, Panama, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Portugal.

This excerpt comes from a story about two chess players, a Pole and a Swede, which story is being presented at a conference in Jerusalem on memory and biography attended by the narrator of Necropolis.

There are elements of Oslovski's biography (and here's one peeve: Ferenck Oslovski is not a very Polish name — the first name is near unpronounceable, and as for the surname, there's no "v" in the Polish alphabet) that remind me of Hans Reiter in 2666, by Roberto Bolaño, and this is one of the beauties of Necropolis — how it draws, often explicitly, on wide and varied sources.

The narrator recalls Stefan Zweig's Chess Story (or Royal Game, as it is sometimes known) as a point of reference, but while these chess players are also obsessed with the game (as it seems all decent players must be), they channel it, or sublimate it, into something altogether more reasonable — healthier, happier, wiser.

Coltodino drank his beer as he listened to them, and said, how is it that the two of you, who not only have a passion for chess, but also play it brilliantly, never wanted to take is farther? and Gunard said, there's too much pressure to deal with. Oslovski confirmed his friend's words, and added, what prize in the world is greater then [sic] this? Watching the sun set over the sea, playing with a friend, eating and drinking, eh? That's life, friend, what a privilege it is to be alive, would you like a sandwich?

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