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Death’s Head Chess Club by Jon Donoghue

July 4, 2016


It was hard to read this novel following David Benioff’s City of Thieves and not compare the two. Aside from the World War II setting, chess games play a pivotal role in the plot of each novel. Which may seem trivial, were it not for the symbolic significance of the game of chess. Chess levels the playing field and sets even the power dynamic between the opponents. Regardless of rank, background, or whose holster carries a bigger weapon, when two men sit to play chess, they are agreeing that these outside circumstances are irrelevant. An honorable game of chess matches mind against mind, may the better mind win. There are no excuses. The results must be recognized as truth.

Set in the realm of Nazi Germany, this significance is amplified. At the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Jesse Owens lifted the skirt on Hitler’s asinine claims of Aryan supremacy. No rhetoric or propaganda could obfuscate the fact that the greatest athlete in the world was a black man. Likewise, the chess games at the center of both City of Thieves and, to a greater extent, Death’s Head Chess Club set up a dynamic in which the powerless plays the all-powerful, the lesser mind (per Nazi doctrine) plays the supreme. The reader, of course, roots for and delights in the victory of the underdog.

The bifurcated narrative in Death’s Head Chess Club bounces back and forth between Auschwitz in the 1940s and Amsterdam in the 1960s. In Auschwitz, SS Obersturmführer Paul Meissner, charged with improving the morale of his men, orchestrates a chess tournament among Nazi soldiers. There is a rumor that one of the Jews in the camp, Emil Clément, also known as “The Watchmaker,” is an unbeatable chess master. Meissner, to goad Emil into playing against the SS officers, puts a price on the game—if Clément wins, his friend will be protected from going “up the chimney.” It is the same contrivance, the life-or-death stakes of the chess match, that Benioff uses in City of Thieves. Here, it is repeated time and again, as officer after officer competes against The Watchmaker and Clément is forced to bare the pressure of these games—each game determines the fate of a fellow Jew.

In the 1960s plot line, Meissner and Clément coincidentally meet again, this time when Clément is playing a chess tournament in the Netherlands. He is scheduled to play a man who is a former Nazi propagandist, and the impending match dregs up all the memories and emotions from Auschwitz. Meissner is a Catholic bishop now (after the war, he served time for war crimes, then became a priest). He is dying of Leukemia.

The plot of two men from opposing sides meeting decades after the concentration camp holds dramatic potential, but here the plot is too contrived. It stretches credulity too many times for the purpose of setting up a final moral reckoning. What are the bounds of repentance, of human forgiveness? It’s a worthy topic if the answers didn’t come so easily. Some of the online reviews are scathing on this point—bashing Donoghue for imagining happy endings in a story about Auschwitz (or even pretending that a Jew would be invited, or able to play chess after full days of back-breaking labor on a loaf of bread).

It’s tough to construct an alternative history when the actual history carries such weight. Elie Wiesel passed away Saturday after a life dedicated to shining a light on the true horrors of Nazi Germany. And Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, while Hollywood, was based on real-life Oskar Schindler. Death’s Head Chess Club does not make light of Auschwitz. The prose is actually self-consciously heavy at points. But it imagines an Auschwitz that fits an easy narrative, for the sake of narrative. Were it pushed more into satire (I thought it might be headed when a chess club was proposed as the solution to dwindling morale at the concentration camp) or into a dialectic examination of forgiveness, it would be in safer territory. Safe might not be something to shoot for, whether the topic is the Holocaust or something less flammable. Because of that, Donoghue might be applauded for taking a big swing, even if he doesn’t quite connect. And aside from the plot contrivances and the sometimes overly-weighty prose, The Death’s Head Chess Club is an engaging, provocative read.

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