Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for Game of the Gods by Paolo Maurensig, translated by Anne Milano Appel. My thanks to Anne at Random Things Tours for inviting me to participate in the tour and to World Editions for my advance review copy.
About the Book
In 1930s British India, a humble servant learns the art of chaturanga, the ancient Eastern ancestor of chess. His natural talent soon catches the attention of the maharaja, who introduces him to the Western version of the game. Brought to England as the prince’s pawn, Malik becomes a chess legend, winning the world championship and humiliating the British colonists. His skills as a refined strategist eventually drag him into a strange game of warfare with far-reaching consequences.
Inspired by the unlikely true story of chess master Malik Mir Sultan Khan, Game of the Gods is a fascinating tale of karma and destiny, by the author of the multimillion-copy bestseller The Lüneburg Variation.
Format: Paperback (256 pages) Publisher: World Editions
Publication date: 12th January 2020 Genre: Historical Fiction
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I had the opportunity to read Paolo Maurensig’s novella A Devil Comes To Town (also translated by Anne Milano Appel) in 2019. At the time I wasn’t aware of the extent of the author’s interest in chess but have subsequently discovered it’s the subject of a number of his novels including his debut The Lüneburg Variation and the prize-winning Theory of Shadows.
Described by the publishers as ‘the story of a lowly servant who, for an instant, becomes a king’, in Game of the Gods the author takes actual facts about the life of chess master Malik Mir Sultan Khan and, using the framing device of extracts from the notebooks of a fictional reporter for the Washington Post, adds elements from his own imagination.
The book begins with Noman La Motta having tracked down the reclusive Malik Mir Sultan Khan to the mission where he is spending his declining years. La Motta gains a rare interview with him thanks to his own boyhood interest in chess. Malik recounts the story of his childhood, including being taught the art of chaturanga, the Eastern ancestor of chess, by his father.
A hunt for a marauding tiger which has been attacking the village attracts the attention of the sport- loving maharaja, Sir Umar Khan, the largest landowner in the Punjab. Impressed by young Malik’s precocious skill at chaturanga, Sir Umar takes him into his household and arranges for him to be coached in the Western rules of chess. The author’s depicts Sir Umar Khan as a colourful character with, as Malik observes, “a natural penchant for provoking others, but…with such civility as to make the other party doubt whether he had understood correctly“.
The book includes fascinating information about chaturanga. Describing it as ‘on a mental level…as close to war as one could imagine’, Malik explains that chaturanga is not just a game but “a philosophical text [that] embraced the arts, the trades, the religious hierarchy, the social order, and the division into castes”. Importantly for later events, it can teach a warrior or commander when to attack and when to retreat, in fact how to predict the fate of any battle.
Eventually Sir Umar Khan takes Malik to Europe where he wins championship after championship, defeating the best chess players of the day. However, he is constantly perturbed at being treated as ‘a freak of nature, a curious phenomenon’ suspecting that his ethnic background makes people unwilling to recognise him as a genuine master of the game. In books of this type it can be difficult to spot where fiction parts company with historical fact. Thanks to Wikipedia, I can advise prospective readers that Malik’s brilliant chess victories are based on fact and it is only in the second half of the book that the author’s imagination comes to the fore.
In this fictional version of Malik’s life, the outbreak of World War II sees his remarkable strategic insight put to use in the service of the Allies. In fact, so amazing is his ability to predict the outcome of field operations, it brings him under suspicion. As a result, he flees to New York where he variously works as a kitchen-hand in a Chinese restaurant, a Manhattan newsboy, a sandwich-board man and a taxi driver. It’s while employed in the latter role that Malik has a fateful (perhaps, fated) encounter that results in him forming a touching relationship with an elderly lady. She provides him with the cultural education he lacks as well as introducing him to famous figures of the day. As he observes, “I had once again risen from the dust to enter a gilded world”.
Game of the Gods is an inventive and entertaining reimagining of the life of a little-known luminary of the chess world that I’m sure will appeal to readers regardless of their knowledge of, or interest in, the game of chess.
A final word about the publishers, World Editions, who do so much to champion translated literature. What I especially like about their books is that, not only do they include biographical information about the author, but about the translator as well. Another nice touch is the inclusion of details about the typography and cover designs because, after all, publishing a book is a team effort.
In three words: Imaginative, touching, fascinating
About the Author
Paolo Maurensig was born in Gorizo and lives in Udine, Italy. Now a bestselling author, he debuted in 1993 with The Lüneburg Variation, translated into over twenty languages. His novels include Canone Inverso, The Guardian of Dreams, and The Archangel of Chess. He won the Bagutta Prize for his novel Theory of Shadows. A Devil Comes to Town, previously published by World Editions, is a brilliant, satirical novella about literary publishing. Game of the Gods is Maurensig’s latest novel and was awarded the prestigious Premio Scanno 2019 Literary Award.
About the Translator
Anne Milano Appel has translated works by a number of leading Italian authors for a variety of publishers in the US and UK. Her awards include the Italian Prose in Translation Award, the John Florio Prize for Italian Translation, and the Northern California Book Award for Translation. Translating professionally since 1996, she is a former library administrator, and has a doctorate in Romance Languages.