By Icchokas Meras
Translated by Jonas Zdanys
Other Press, 176 pages, $13.95.
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To stalemate a game of chess is no easy thing: One has to position the king in a square in which, although he is not in check, he can only move into check and no other piece can move, either. The king is safe, but only on his small square. All permutations have been exhausted, no help will arrive. No concession can be made, no gambit either.
Before the days of widespread terrorism, of guerrilla war-gaming, there was no better metaphor for war than chess. Possibly the only Lithuanian writer known to some in the West, Icchokas Meras knows the intricacies of the game, and its seriousness. He knows its players, too. He knows man as Huizinga knew man: as a homo ludens, a “man of play” — a man who plays at his humanity, who games at his fate under rules that are unappeasably harsh. Meras’s seminal novel, “Stalemate,” is suffused with the seriousness of play; his game is played on a board called Europe, its death-black grandmaster the Nazi mind.
Quickly — because “Stalemate,” as translated by Jonas Zdanys, moves at a relentless, blitzkrieging pace — Meras establishes his antipodes, the gamers that will tense the next hundred pages. There is Vilna, to the Jews, Wilna to the Germans — a city divided into ghettos, the official ghetto of Litvak Jews, and the unofficial ghetto of Lithuanian wartime privation. Dark, gray, stony and silent, the city plays black to the countryside’s light-infused meadows, trees and chirruping, free-flying birds.
We are introduced to two characters who play the roles of two more. Isaac is a chess prodigy, the youngest son of Abraham Lipman; also known as Isia, he fancies himself a young suitor named Shimek. Then there is the love of his brief life, the chaste Esther-Liba, or Lubuzia, called Buzia by Isaac. Both nicknames, Buzia and Shimek, are taken from the characters of Sholom Aleichem’s “Song of Songs” — a tale of love no less gorgeous than King Solomon’s original. Copies of that writer’s work, printed in Vilna — printing capital of the Yiddish world — burned in the occupied streets for days.
“I wanted to be Shimek and wanted her to be Buzia,” Isaac says early on in the clipped thought-paragraphs that mark the book’s logical, move-by-move style.
“I wanted the narrow streets surrounded by the high ghetto fence to disappear.
“I wanted there to be fewer people around me marked by those yellow stars.
“I wanted us to be small and young and alone together. Shimek and Buzia. Sitting in an endless wide meadow, on the soft grass, where I could tell her….”
Isaac wants and wants, as if he would play chess not with ivory, ebony or wood but with people — maneuvering them out of harm, defensive in his offense.
Isaac and Esther meet in the ghetto. They sit across from each other in silence as Esther plays her own antipodal game: She plucks petals from precious flowers gathered outside the ghetto. “Yes,” she says, plucking one and then letting it float to the ground. She plucks another, “No.” Again and again. She loves him not? Reader, she loves him.
But Schoger controls the ghetto. An embodiment of evil, he represents the most complex, difficult Nazi, if evil isn’t lessened by historical relativism. Bourgeois and cultured, an intellectual and a friend to art, he fancies himself something of a chess player, and so he enlists Isaac, Abraham’s sacrifice, in a game of ultimate stakes. With much of the ghetto looking on, a mute circle around the squared board, Schoger plays black to Isaac’s white for the life of the children of the ghetto. If Isaac loses, the children of the ghetto will be killed at camp (Lithuania’s death-pit, Paneriai), but Isaac will be spared. If Isaac wins, the children are saved, but Isaac will die. If Isaac manages to force a stalemate, survival has been promised. Which is not to say assured.
Meras was born in 1934 in Kelme, northwestern Lithuania; known in Yiddish as Kelem, it is a small town with a prewar majority Jewish population that was utterly destroyed in the Holocaust. Kelme is situated on a plain that was deforested 300 years ago by a Lithuanian noble eager for laborers to serve the ruling class; its name is derived from kelmes, meaning fallen tree. Hidden through the Nazi slaughter by a farmer, Meras survived the war without family. Angering the communist authorities with 1971’s acclaimed allegory, “Striptease or Paris-Rome-Paris,” and in danger of falling prey to Stalin’s Siberian purge of intellectuals from the Baltics, Meras managed to immigrate to Israel, where to this day he writes — shaping taut, fugal sentences in Lithuanian — in a small Kelme-like town just south of Tel Aviv. Many awards have followed his work, not just of the Jewish or Israeli worlds but also from the Lithuanian. That none of his many novels or stories since has achieved the artistic heights of “Stalemate” speaks more for this novel than against the multitudinous others.
Written in 1963 (in Lithuanian, “Lygiosios Trunka Akimirka,” translating to the logically illogical “A Stalemate Lasts But a Moment”), though only translated into English in 1980 and now for the first time reprinted, “Stalemate” has not aged as has much literature of the Holocaust. A worthy heir to the one novella of the sad Tadeusz Borowski, to the many exercises in extended despair assayed by the great Jakov Lind, “Stalemate” presents a European master at the height of his powers. While its prose bears marks of the muted best, and the imprecise worst, of brittle, precious post-war European poetry, the manic logic of the structure is irrefutably brilliant and compelling.
As each swift chapter details the death of one of the children of patriarch Abraham Lipman (less a visionary than a partisan, less a partisan than a father), each death is subsequently made to correspond to a move of the game. Doubling his doubles, piling on ganger after ganger with implacable motion, Meras games to an ending that would be unfair to reveal. But while the drama of any ending would be stalemated by historical fact (the death of millions, the debasement of European culture), Meras’s characters survive metaphor and symbol, becoming real people, our loves and our losses, locked in a greater, more impossible game than mere pawn-for-pawn chess. It is a game whose rules — far from being elemental, or existentially comforting, by reason of their impartiality — are instead revised perpetually, cruelly, almost entertainingly, at the executioner’s whim. This game was life for Europe’s Jews. Its play was a loss that meant death.
Joshua Cohen is the author of the recent work “The Quorum” (Twisted Spoon Press), and the forthcoming (2006) “Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto” (Fugue State Press).