cover image Theory of Shadows

Theory of Shadows

Paolo Maurensig, trans. from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23 (192p) ISBN 978-0-374-27380-4

Italian novelist Maurensig (The Luneberg Variation) returns to the subject of chess for this novel about real-life world champion Alexsander Alekhine, who was born in Moscow and died in March 1946 in Estoril, Portugal, under mysterious circumstances. A brief prologue describes the novelist-narrator’s 2012 visit to Estoril to investigate the cause of Alekhine’s death—reported at different times as heart attack, choking on a piece of meat, suicide, or homicide. The main narrative explores Alekhine’s state of mind during his last days, during which, pressed for money and uncertain he can defend his title against a new generation of chess players, he prepares for an upcoming match by studying his opponent’s previous games, walking on the beach, and consuming alcohol. Along the way, a Jewish violinist provides music and friendship, despite the fact that while living under Nazi protection Alekhine published anti-Semitic articles (which he later disavowed), and a journalist prompts Alekhine to recall his first tournament victory in at age 16, four failed marriages, and playing against opponents including Grandmaster Capablanca, Trotsky, and Reischminister Hans Frank. When Alekhine receives an envelope containing photographs of his former friends standing among the accused at the Nuremberg trials, he believes someone plans to kill him, but he focuses on what he cares about most: keeping his title. Maurensig evokes a world of betrayal, personal and pervasive throughout Europe, from António de Oliveira Salazar’s secret police to Stalin’s Soviet Union. His epilogue offers several theories about Alekhine’s death and suggests an ingenious explanation. Maurensig’s novel is enjoyable for grandmasters and novices alike. (Jan.)