The Chess Artist: Genius, Obsession, and the World's Oldest Game|
by J. C. Hallman
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|A Review of: The Chess Artist: Genius, Obsession, and the WorldÆs Oldest Game
by Jerry White
There's been a lot of hand-wringing recently about the proliferation
of MFA programmes in Creative Writing at North American universities.
There are clearly some intellectual and educational problems there:
In what way is writing a "Fine Art"? Why does someone
need a professional credential to be a writer? What exactly qualifies
someone to teach in such a programme? Still, many of the concerns
seem to be of the professional variety. Just what does one do with
an MFA anyway, besides get a teaching job (all-too-often to create
more MFAs and perpetuate something perilously close to the pyramid
scheme that holders of humanities PhDs know all too well)? One of
the answers I hear from time to time is that an MFA can be a great
entre into magazine writing, that it gives a budding writer a good
sense of story, of attention to detail-and hey, what magazine editor
wouldn't want that?
But aren't MFA programmes designed to encourage creativity? Aren't
they meant to get budding writers to follow the muse wherever it
may take them? These are not skills that a magazine staffer needs.
Indeed, a lot of people who take the MFA experience seriously become
obsessive or maladjusted, just as anyone fully devoted to an
all-consuming art should be. "It was perhaps not a surprise
that [they] tended to be odd and paranoid. Or that when pressure
mounted, they began to act strangely, eccentricities surfacing."
Those are the words of J.C. Hallman, a 1991 graduate of the Iowa
Writers Workshop, one of the US's most prestigious MFA programmes.
He is not writing about budding novelists, but he may as well be.
He is writing about chess players.
It's more than just that quote that leads me to think that MFA
programmes and chess are a match made in heaven. We find in The
Chess Artist, finally, a reasonable answer to the question "what
do you do with an MFA in Creative Writing?" Well, one thing
you can do is a write a book that combines fluid, well crafted
language with obsessive curiosity-a book that combines the mass-market
appeal of a good story with an insistence that the reader follow
the story to some pretty far-flung part of the world, in addition
to some unpleasant parts of the US. The Chess Artist reads to me
like a seminal MFA book, a work that brings a craftsman's eye to
topics to which only an unbalanced writer could devote so much time.
Hallman's tale opens in Kalmykia, a place that my computer tags as
a spelling error and which I bet few readers could find on a map.
This is a Russian republic, much closer to Kazakhstan than Moscow
(as the very sharp map in the book's opening page shows), run by a
dictatorial, chess-obsessed President named Kirsan Ilyumzhinov.
His plan to re-vitalise his post-Soviet capital is to turn it into
a full-blown chess city, a sort of combination of gargantuan amusement
park and city-size religious temple devoted to the world's favourite
board game. Hallman often quotes him at length, giving a sense of
his rambling incoherence that I do not think is just a result of
poor translation. The theme of chess as a new religion is a recurring
I tensed up when I heard him use the Russian word for religion, and
shifted anxiously when the translation arrived from Bammusha. The
president went on:
"Because right now half a billion people in the world play
chess. My aim is to make a billion people play chess. There are
Muslims, Christians, Buddhists-I think the twenty-first century
will be the century of the Internet. Humankind is making very large
steps in its development. And there will be meetings. Humankind
will meet other civilizations in the future. Not Earth civilizations.
From other stars in our universe. A person in the twenty-first
century will differ in many ways from a person in the twentieth
century. And chess is a sport of the Internet. You cannot hold a
football championship on the Internet. Millions of people in
America, millions of people in Europe, they can all be on-line at
the same time. This is not possible in football. Maybe chess,
then, can become a religion."
The book closes in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Hallman
and his friend Glenn Umstead (a maladjusted master chess player,
who, throughout the book is Virgil to Hallman's Dante) play a game
of chess in front of the artwork of the chess-obsessed Marcel Duchamp
(the PMA has an entire room devoted to Duchamp, including his famed
upside-down toilet). These bookends would seem to suggest two
divergent interpretations of the way that chess serves as the
ultimate preview of a globalised world, a cultural force that
transcends borders at the same time that it transforms localities.
These narrative streams do indeed drive that point home, and are
even linked by a common theme of incoherence (Duchamp, in his way,
was as nutty as the Kalmyk president). But there are two other
sub-plots in this maze-like book that make that point more viscerally:
the first relates to a young Tibetan Buddhist born in Kalmykia,
raised in Philadelphia and now living in Boulder; and the second
involves descriptions of the place chess has in US prisons.
The monk's name is Telo Rinpoche (born Erdne Ombadykow), and he was
at one point relatively close to both the Kalmyk president and the
Dalai Lama. He became, in essence, the point-man in the attempt
to revive and protect Buddhism in Kalmykia (uniquely in Europe,
it's the majority religion there), but at the same time, he was a
pawn in the Kalmyk President's effort to re-define the culture.
Hallman seems fascinated by the paradoxes that the young man embodies,
and also by the nomadic life he has lead:
"Rinpoche had begun to tap into a conundrum far more absurd
than the fact that he was a monk who liked listening to the Smashing
Pumpkins. He was a god-puppet. Kirsan and the Dalai Lama had each
tried to play him like a chess piece of their own array. Eventually,
he had told people he was giving in to His Holiness's request that
he continue his studies in India. He recorded a terse good-bye on
Kalmyk television, and left Kalmykia in 1994. But instead of heading
to India, he went to Philadelphia for Thanksgiving, having already
decided that he would not return. After the holiday, Rinpoche
headed West rather than East. He went to Boulder, Colorado, where
there was a growing community of Tibetans. It was in this interval
that he disrobed."
This is quite a nicely constructed passage, compressing quite a lot
of detail into a form that also gives a sense of the way that
Rinpoche has spread himself across the globe; it's a highly efficient
evocation of sprawl. Such a paradox conveys not only the aspects
of chess that fascinate Hallman, but also his mastery of the tools
of the trade that MFA programmes seek to teach their students:
confidence in the use of language and a good eye for a developing
story; those parts of the story that can't be fully developed are
hinted at, leaving plenty to the reader's imagination. No need to
underscore here the fact that this particular story-about a
chess-playing Buddhist monk who is manipulated by an obscure
monomaniacal dictator from the Caucuses-takes us a lot closer to
the territory that is usually reserved for novelists unconcerned
about winning a large audience; we are also pretty far from the
typical concerns of the contemporary travelogue.
And we move further still from these concerns when Hallman takes
us into the bowels of the US prison system. Towards the end of the
book, Glenn does some workshops for prison chess clubs-one in
Jackson, Michigan and one in Richmond, Virginia. In a bizarre turn,
the prison in Michigan brings Hallman close to the universalist
idealism to which the Kalmyk president, however insanely, aspired.
When one inmate asks, "How do you, like, really get good at
chess?" Hallman reports that "The others fell quiet. The
question was not so much about chess as it was about using the game
to adopt a regimen of study and practice. It could apply to chess;
it could apply to anything." But the prison in Virginia reveals
to Hallman the dark side of the internationalism that Rinpoche
seemed to embody, particularly when he meets Claude Bloodgood.
Bloodgood is introduced as a guy who claims to have been born in
La Paz, Mexico as Klaus Bluttgutt, and to have fought in WWII with
the German Abwehr (like his father) and then with the Marines in
Korea. A few pages later, Hallman deflates the story, telling us
that the "more likely version of Bloodgood's life was shorter
and less interesting": he started his criminal career as a
petty fraudster, eventually killing his mother and winding up with
a life sentence. Chess keeps him sane in a way. So chess is what
links not an internationalist Buddhist monk with an internationalist
Nazi mercenary; instead, chess is the link between a failed
international peacemaker and a pathetic, pathologically lying
criminal. Both are chess players, both see chess as a reflection
of their internationalist aspirations, and both find their grand
ambitions frustrated by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
The simple connection between these two men, the Buddhist monk and
the sociopath lifer, is, finally, Hallman's analysis of the game's
meaning for a globalised world. The game cannot make the man, the
man makes the game. But coming right up the middle of this duality
is our protagonist Glenn Umstead, a neurotic, slightly unstable
guy, who persists in fearlessly wandering the globe in search of a
kind of enlightenment through chess. And always on the sides, never
far from the story but never quite at the centre of it either, are
two more chess-obsessed men whose surrealist sensibilities are a
bit too close for comfort: Kirsan Ilyumzhinov and Marcel Duchamp.
The Chess Artist, then, is a neat' narrative put together with all
the exactitude and attention to detail and structure that one would
expect of a well-trained professional. But it's also a story about
disorder': obsession, insanity, squalor, and a tiny Republic in
eastern Russia. George Steiner, a real lover of the game, once
wrote that "Chess may be the deepest, least exhaustible of
pastimes, but it is nothing more. As for a chess genius, he is a
human being who focuses vast, little-understood mental gifts and
labours on an ultimately trivial human enterprise." This is a
pretty sensible analysis with which I agree. I am also heartened
to see an emerging writer, trained in fiction as though it was
another craft whose technical aspects need only to be learned in a
workshop, completely ignore such a sage pronouncement.