Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Vassily Aksyonov: Victory, a Story with Exaggerations

In a compartment on an express train, the grandmaster was playing a game of chess with a casual fellow-traveler.

When the man stepped into the compartment, he had immediately recognized the grandmaster, and he was immediately set aflame with an unthinkable desire for an unthinkable victory over the grandmaster. "Who knows," he thought, casting crafty, calculating glances at the grandmaster, "Who knows? He doesn't look so tough."

The grandmaster immediately understood that he had been recognized and, with a twinge of melancholy, he resigned himself to his fate. He wouldn't get away without playing at least two games. He also immediately recognized this man's type. From time to time, while gazing from the windows of the Chess Club on Gogol Boulevard, he had seen the pink round foreheads of such people.

When the train began to move, the grandmaster's traveling companion stretched himself with a naive cunning and asked indifferently:

"Care to play some chess, comrade?"

"Sure, okay," mumbled the grandmaster.

The traveling companion stuck his head out of the compartment and called the conductor. A chess set appeared. He snatched it a bit too hurriedly to suit his indifference, spilled out the pieces, grabbed two pawns, clenched them in his fists, and extended them to the grandmaster. Tattooed on the bulge between the thumb and index finger of his left hand were the letters "G.O."

"The left," said the grandmaster and he knitted his brow slightly, imagining blows from these fists--the right or the left.

He got white.

"A good way to kill the time, isn't it? On the road, chess is a sweet deal," G.O. said in a good-natured manner as he started setting up the pieces.

They quickly started playing the Northern Gambit, but then everything got mixed up. The grandmaster stared attentively at the board, making small, insignificant moves. Several times, mating paths for the queen flashed before his eyes like lightning, but he extinguished these flare-ups, slightly lowering his eyelids and submitting his sword to the wearisome note of compassion, sounding inside him like the buzzing of a mosquito.

"Khas-Bulat the Bold, poor is your hut..."* G.O. drawled out in the same note.

The grandmaster was the embodiment of correctness, the embodiment of severity in dress and manner that is so characteristic of those who are uncertain of themselves and easily wounded. He was young, dressed in a grey suit, light shirt, and simple tie. No one, except the grandmaster himself, was aware of the fact that his simple ties bore the trademark of the "House of Dior". This little secret always gave comfort and a warm feeling to the young, t aciturn grandmaster. His eyeglasses often came to his aid, hiding the uncertainty and timidity of his gaze from strangers. He complained about his lips, which characteristically were stretched out too far in a pathetic smile or quiver. He would be happy to hide his lips from the gaze of strangers, but, unfortunately, this would not be polite in society.

G.O.'s play startled and distressed the grandmaster. On the left flank, the pieces were amassed in what resembled a throng of charlatanlike kabalistic symbols. The entire left flank was permeated with the smell of a lavatory and bleach, the acrid scent of a barracks, wet kitchen rags, as well as castor oil and diarrhea from early childhood.

"You're a grandmaster, aren't you?" G.O. asked.

"Yes," the grandmaster answered in confirmation.

"Ha-ha-ha, what a coincidence!" G.O. exclaimed.

"'What a coincidence'? What coincidence is he talking about? It can't be! Can it? I resign. Accept my resignation," the grandmaster thought rapidly in a panic. But then he realized what it was all about and he smiled.

"Yes, of course, of course."

'"Here you are a grandmaster, and I'm forking your queen and rook," G.O. said. He raised his hand. The knight-provocateur hung in the air above the board.

"A fork in the rear," the grandmaster thought. "There's a fork for you! Grandpa had his own fork, and he didn't let anyone else use it. Private property. His personal fork, spoon, and knife, personal plates and a bottle for water. And remember the 'lyrical' fur coat, a heavy fur coat made of 'lyrical' fur. It was hanging by the entrance. Grandpa almost never went outside. A fork for Grandpa and Grandma. It's a pity to lose old people."

While the knight was hovering above the board, the shining lines and points of possible pre-mating attacks and sacrifices again flashed before the eyes of the grandmaster. Alas, the crupper of the knight with its drooping dirty-violet flannel blanket was so convincing that the grandmaster shrugged his shoulders.

"You're giving me your rook?" G.O. asked.

"What else can I do?"

"You're sacrificing the rook for an attack? Have I guessed your plan?" G.O. asked, trying to decide whether or not to put the knight down on the desired square.

"I'm just saving my queen," the grandmaster muttered.

"You're not going to ambush me?" G.O. asked.

"No. You're a strong player."

G.O. made his cherished fork. The grandmaster hid his queen away in a secluded corner beyond the terrace, beyond the crumbling stone terrace with its carved, decaying columns, where in autumn it smelled sharply of rotting maple leaves. Here you can sit in a comfortable pose, squat down. It's good here; at any rate, the ego doesn't suffer. Rising up for a second and glancing around the terrace, he saw G.O. taking the rook.

The intrusion of the black knight into the senseless mass on the left flank, or, at any rate, its occupation of the b4 square, gave rise to reflection.

The grandmaster understood that in this variation, in this spring, green evening, he lacked only youthful myths. It's true, there are all sorts of fools abroad in the world--Billy-boys, cowboy Harrys, beauties like Mary and Nellie, and brigantines raise their sails...but there comes a moment when you feel the danger and very real proximity of the black knight on the b4 square. A difficult, subtle, fascinating, careful struggle lay ahead. Life lay ahead.

The grandmaster won a pawn, pulled out his handkerchief, and blew his nose. The few moments in total isolation when his lips and nose were covered by the handkerchief put him in a banal-philosophic mood. "That's how we achieve something," he thought. "But then after that? Your whole life you're achieving something; victory comes to you, but there is no joy from it. Take, for example, the city of Hong Kong, distant and highly mysterious–I've already been there. I've already been everywhere."

The loss of a pawn did not upset G.O.; after all, he had just won a rook. He answered the grandmaster with a move of his queen, causing heartburn and momentary headache.

The grandmaster grasped that some joys were still in store for him. For example, the joy of long bishop moves along all the diagonals. To draw the bishop, even ever so slightly, across the board would, to some extent, substitute for gliding swiftly in a dinghy along the sunny, slightly colorful water of a suburban Moscow pond, from light to shade, and from shade to light. The grandmaster felt an indefinable, passionate longing to seize square h8, for that was the field of love, the knoll of love, above which hung transparent dragonflies.

"Smart move to take my rook like that; and I was cheering," G.O.remarked in his bass voice, with only the last word giving hint of his irritation.

"Forgive me," the grandmaster said quietly. "Perhaps you'd like to take back the move?"

"No, no," said G.O. "No exceptions, I beg you."

"I'll give my dagger, I'll give my horse, I'll give my rifle, too..."* he began singing, immersing himself in his strategic cogitations.

The stormy summer holiday of love on the field brought no joy to the grandmaster; in fact, it troubled him. He felt that soon there would be a massing of forces in the center that was outwardly logical, but essentially absurd. Again he heard the cacophony and smelled the bleaching powder just as in the long corridors of his damned memory on the left flank.

"It's curious. Why are all chess players Jews?" G.O. asked.

"What do you mean all?" said the grandmaster. “Take me, for example. I'm not a Jew."

"Really?" G.O. said in surprise, then added, "But don't think I'm like that. I don't have any prejudices on that score. It's just interesting."

"And there's you, for example," said the grandmaster. "You're not a Jew, are you?"

"Me? What are you talking about?" mumbled G.O. and again he immersed himself in his secret plans.

"If I do that, he does that," thought G.O. "If I take him there, he takes me there, then I go here, he answers with this... All the same, I'll beat him. All the same, I'll smash him. Just think, grandmaster–ballet-master, you're dangling on a thin thread in front of me. I know all about your championships--you decide those things ahead of time. All the same, I'll teach you a lesson. I'll bloody your nose!"

"Yes, I lost that exchange," he said to the grandmaster. "But it's still not over."

He began an attack in the center, and, of course, as was expected, the center turned into a field of terrible, senseless operations. This was no-love, no-meeting, no-hope, no-greeting, no-life. Flulike shivering, and again yellow snow, post-war discomfort, whole body itching. The black queen in the center cawed like a crow in love; crow love, moreover, scraped like a knife over a tin basin in the neighbors' apartment. Nothing has ever so definitely shown the senselessness and illusoriness of life as this position in the center. It was time to end the game.

"No," thought the grandmaster, "certainly there is more than just this." He put on the tape of Bach piano pieces, calmed his heart with the sounds, pure and monotonous like the splashing of waves, then he exited the dacha, heading toward the sea. Pine trees rustled above him, and below his bare feet was a slippery and bouncy crust of pine needles.

Recalling the sea and imitating it, he began to understand the position, to harmonize it. It suddenly became pure and light in his soul. Logically, like a Bach coda, mate approached for black. Dully and beautifully a mating situation shone out, perfect like an egg. The grandmaster looked at G.O., who was sitting silent, like a bull, staring at the farthest rear of the grandmaster's ranks. He didn't notice the mate threatening his king. The grandmaster kept silent, not wanting to disturb the enchantment of the moment.

"Check," G.O. said quietly and carefully, moving his knight. He was barely able to contain an internal roar.

...The grandmaster cried out and started to run. Behind him, stamping and whistling, came the owner of the dacha, the coachman Evripid, and Nina Kuzminchina. Outpacing them and overtaking the grandmaster was the unleashed dog Nochka.

"Check," G.O. said again, repositioning his knight and swallowing air with agonizing lust.

They led the grandmaster through the silent crowd. Following behind him, someone was lightly poking his back with a hard object. Up ahead, a man in a black coat and S.S. lightening bolts on his epaulets was waiting. A step. A half-second, another step. One second, a step. One and a half seconds, another step. Two... Steps going up. Why up? These things are supposed to be done in a pit. Must be brave. Is this necessary? How long does it take to put the disgusting-smelling bast sack over the head? It became dark and hard to breathe. Somewhere far off, an orchestra was playing Khas-Bulat the Bold with bravura.

"Mate!" exclaimed G.O. like a brass horn.

"There, you see," muttered the grandmaster. "Congratulations!"

"Oof!" said G.O. "Oof, ooo, I'm all sweaty. I can't believe it. I have to...what the heck! Unbelievable, I stuck mate to a grandmaster! Unbelievable, but a fact!" he laughed. "Good boy!" He jokingly patted himself on the head. "Oh, my dear grandmaster, grandmaster," he began buzzing as he placed a hand on the grandmaster's shoulder and gave it a friendly squeeze. "My dear young man. Did your nerves give out? Admit it!"

"Yes, I fell apart," the grandmaster hastily confirmed.

With a free, expansive gesture, G.O. swept the pieces off the board. The board was old and pockmarked; the polished surface veneer was torn off in places, exposing the yellow, tortured wood, and there were fragments of round marks left, in days long-gone, by glasses of railroad tea.

The grandmaster gazed at the empty board, at the sixty-four absolutely impassive squares, all capable of whirling up not only his own life, but an endless number of lives, and this endless succession of light and dark squares filled him with a reverence and quiet joy. "I guess," he thought, "I have committed no terribly disgusting acts in my life."

"I'll tell people, but no one will believe me," G.O. sighed distressfully.

"Why won't they believe you? What's not to believe? You're a strong, tough player," the grandmaster said.

"No one will believe me," G.O. repeated. “They'll say I'm crazy. What proof do I have?"

"Please," said the grandmaster, slightly offended as he gazed at G.O.'s pink, round forehead. "I'll give you irrefutable proof. I knew I was going to meet you."

He reached into his briefcase and pulled out a large, hand-sized golden medal on which was beautifully engraved: "The bearer of this medal defeated me in a game of chess. Grandmaster So-and-So."

"I just have to put on the date," he said pulling an engraving device out of his briefcase and artfully embossing the date on the edge of the medal. "It's pure gold," he said, presenting the medal.

"Really?" G.O. asked.

"Absolutely pure gold," the grandmaster said. "I've ordered a lot of these medals, and I'll always keep them in supply."

February 1965

Translated by Eric Konkol

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