...nothing on earth exerts such pressure on the human soul as a void. (19)
Black. White. Which is it? Which one is our nature? We can be good, we can be cruel. We praise ourselves saying being human entails being good. We have daily proofs that is not necessary the case. If we are meant to be good and we are not, our mind have lost the battle against a deviation. Or against our true nature.
Now that is a depressing thought.
I had this book on my to-read shelf for months. And I wasn't going to read it this soon. A Goodreads group crossed my path and here I am. I am so glad it did. I was missing a brilliant, perceptive observer of the human condition. Zweig had a keen eye to deal with the psychological aspects of human beings with the simplicity that characterizes great writers. Humble erudition is what makes me love an author. Complicated writing and pretentious words are fine if they are used properly; otherwise, everything is forgettable. I don't only need to know that you know; let me learn too.
Black. White. The mind has to choose. A million possibilities lying in a black and white board with sixty-four little squares dividing A from B. Day from night. Good from evil. A dichotomy present in every human life. It is there, inside, waiting for a decision. You are thinking: Which path should I take?
Time. Time is needed to decide. And often it is not enough.
Keep the pressure on, advance instead of defending! (14)
Zweig seems to be the kind of author that share the characters' psyches without hesitation. That help us understand more. Even while writing about how the mind is supposed to work, with the complexity that such a task entails. But he succeeded and with a beautiful, simple and refreshing prose. You feel what he wrote. He tended to repeat keywords in order to emphasize a particular situation, thought, feeling, etc.; that embellishes the sentence with a unique melody.
The novella starts with a recount of Mirko Czentovic's story, the world chess champion. A young man whose ignorance was universal in all fields, but played chess like no one in the world and was now visiting my dear Buenos Aires.
As soon as Mirko had done his chores around the house, he sat stolidly in the living-room with that vacant gaze seen in sheep out at pasture, paying not the least attention to what was going on around him. (5)
That was described as apathy. To be able to switch off the inner processes that often haunt us, just for a minute, in order to subtract yourself from reality and dwell in reverie... Or nothing. To think nothing. To want nothing. To put the restless soul in a lethargic state without knowing what is going on around us. Well...
Anyway, the boy learnt to play chess only by looking at some men playing it. (Hard to imagine, and I am not saying it because I tried that when I was younger. But why on earth would I question that fact in literature? Strangest things have happened.) Czentovic was a grotesque, simple-minded boy lost in the world of the mind. A boy that in a relatively short period of time, after tasting the bittersweet elixir of money and fame, became a cold, ostentatiously proud person. Unfortunately, several times I had the unpleasant experience of seeing how a simple person that came from a humble background could turn into an arrogant figure after achieving some material success.
Arrogance and confidence are two different things. And that relies on the fact that despite his annoying pride, Czentovic was still insecure. He never talked to well-educated people because he feared he would say something stupid. Behind that self-absorbed body language, an overwhelming insecurity was hidden.
There is psychological material in everyone, even in the apparently simplest man of all.
Black. White. A steppenwolf inside. Which nature will defeat the other? Does our opinion matter? And, which one are we? A. B. Both. The reckless combination of light and darkness. Always obsessively looking for a referent. An answer. A cure. The permanence of sanity.
You were left irredeemably alone with yourself, your body, and the four or five silent objects, table, bed, window, washbasin... There was nothing to do, nothing to hear, nothing to see, you were surrounded everywhere, all the time, by the void, that entirely spaceless, timeless vacuum. You walked up and down, and your thoughts went up and down with you, up and down, again and again. But even thoughts, insubstantial as they may seem, need something to fix on, or they begin to rotate and circle aimlessly around themselves; they can’t tolerate a vacuum either. You kept waiting for something from morning to evening, and nothing happened. You waited again, and yet again. Nothing happened. You waited, waited, waited, you thought, you thought, you thought until your head was aching. Nothing happened. You were left alone. Alone. Alone. (19)
This novella was a delight to read. All the characters amused me or disgusted me with the same intensity. Zweig described them so vividly. His writing reflects the characters' mood with perfection. I could almost hear the sneer coming from McConnor's rage after losing his first game. I could almost see Czentovic's cold and defying eyes while playing his insensitive game. Or Dr B. predicting all the possible moves with ecstatic frenzy. I suddenly became another eager witness in the middle of a growing excitement. I could also feel the oppression of his soul while he was narrating his confinement in an empty room. I read and absorbed it all. His despair, his tedium, sorrow and fear.
I was to retch and retch on my own thoughts until they choked me... (21)
In conclusion, intriguing plot, interesting characters, situations described so vividly that you can almost touch them and a magnificent, accessible writing with the power to dazzle you until the end. Yes and a thousand times “yes”. Another writer to admire.
Black. White. And we are in the middle, surrounded by many combinations, many possibilities, paths and decisions. Two sides of us coexisting in one body. Perhaps, two people writing these rambling thoughts. Thoughts and more thoughts. Questioning, torturing, haunting.
We are in the middle. No king has been defeated, yet Life ironically cries "Checkmate!".