cover image The Luneburg Variation

The Luneburg Variation

Paolo Maurensig. Farrar Straus Giroux, $19 (160pp) ISBN 978-0-374-19435-2

Not since White Knights of Reykjavik, George Steiner's riveting account of the 1972 world championship match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer, has a writer demonstrated such stunning insight into the nurturing madness that compels chess play at the master level. Half thriller, half Holocaust diary, Maurensig's debut begins and ends with the death of a wealthy German businessman on a marble and topiary chessboard at his Vienna estate. The story evolves in patterns that evoke the advances and defenses of a well-played chess game. Hans Mayer, adopted son and heir of the mysterious narrator, appears on a night train headed for Vienna. With quiet ferocity, Mayer charms his fellow passengers by relating the story of his lifelong fascination with chess. His absolute surrender to the game is figured in his narrative's decadent surrender of reason to aesthetic sensibility--a surrender that the novel suggests is necessary to the maintenance of any full-fledged chess obsession. Much more than a game to the novelist himself, chess in Maurensig's hands evokes one striking image after another. A childlike chess prodigy is cast as Jesus among the doctors; frenzied games are carried on in the dark red rooms of German clubs; at one point, blood spatters the marble of cafe tables in an almost cinematic reminiscence of the novel's dramatic opening gambit: ""They say that chess was born in bloodshed."" In particular, chess represents (as in The Seventh Seal) one man's fight for life--here, the struggle of a Jew against the Nazi regime. Though Maurensig occasionally produces a few purple passages, nearly every page of his novel contains an idea or an expression that shines with the unadorned brilliance of a good move. (Nov.)