The Death’s Head Chess Club

Some weeks ago, due to a mismanagement of timing, I arrived at work 30 minutes early. Funnily enough the prospect of sitting at my desk for half an hour extra didn’t fill me with glee so I headed to the nearest Bookshop. Bookshop is a very generous term for this establishment. In amongst the shelves of buy one get one free Haribo and Sudoku puzzle magazines was a lonely display of books. The selection wasn’t brilliant but I’d finished my book on the tube and I get cranky without new literature. There was one copy of a yellowish grey book whose title had been half covered by a sticker telling me that I could get 50% off Cadbury’s chocolate with this purchase.  I don’t think I’ve felt sorry for a new book before. Old ones certainly but this book was pristine. I’m glad that I bowed to sympathy. It was called “The Death’s Head Chess Club” and it turned out to be a highly surprising read.

The premise for the Book is a fascinating one. A Jewish chess maestro, attending a tournament in Amsterdam comes across a catholic priest who used to be an SS guard in Auschwitz. While there the SS officer forced the Jew to play chess against the other guards to see if he was truly unbeatable at the game. If he won he got to save someone from the gas chambers. If he lost, that person would be killed.

The book is definitely worth reading. I doubt it will win any awards and a couple of weeks on I find that it’s left very little of an impression on me but I know that I enjoyed it when I was reading it. I suppose I was expecting a topic like this to really hit hard emotionally but strangely I found myself more interested in the general history of the time rather than the horror being inflicted. Through a series of flashbacks we see the story play out and we come to understand how the main characters came to be the way they are. All the way through there are footnotes explaining the different historical elements and German phrases and at times it read more like a history book than a work of fiction. The same can be said for the chess games. Unless you are a chess aficionado then they will probably go slightly over your head and there are lots of them.

I suppose this was somewhat of a mixed bag. The story was compelling and wonderfully written but it didn’t seem to know if it was a pure work of fiction or an educational guide. I suppose that’s the problem with trying to set a fictional story at the time of such a well-documented event, especially when you try to fit real people in amongst fictional ones.

What I will say is that the majority of the characters make for great reading, especially Meissner and Eidenmüller. The relationship between the two officers is light hearted and some points quite moving as they start to realise the depth of the horror contained at Auschwitz. Overall the book has a great message of forgiveness as well. Not just to those who have done us wrong but also to ourselves. All of the characters carry guilt and are seeking absolution in one way or another. Even if they aren’t aware of it at the start of the story, by the end old wounds have been opened and no one leaves the tale in the way that they entered it.

Enjoyable is the wrong word to use for a book on this topic but with the absence of real gut wrenching emotion it strangely works. I enjoyed the characters, I enjoyed the plot and I enjoyed the facts and information provided throughout. Unsurprisingly this isn’t based on true events and maybe that’s where the issue is. With so many horrific survival stories from the camps it feels a little erroneous to read one that didn’t happen. I apologise to those reading who wanted a solid recommendation or a flat out dismissal. I can’t do that with this book. If you like history and facts, or you are a chess fan then you’ll probably love this. In fact most of the Internet seems to disagree with my opinion. It’s a good book but it left me strangely empty. Considering the topic that seems a little strange.

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