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25. November 2003

Murphy/Cochran: Grandmaster

A married couple of writers called Murphy and Cochrane – already in name close to grand-master level chess – may perhaps feel impelled by fate to write a book such as "Grandmaster”. It reads as if it were inspired by the minds of the great masters - mystical, literary and chess masters. The book itself is a masterpiece.



Justin Gilead and Zharkow first meet as ten-year-olds in a prestigious duel between chess prodigies, one as a representative of the West the other of the East. They are like polarized twins, closely complementing each other: all their later actions will constantly be directed at destroying each other and as a result themselves. Both go a long way in preparation for the final encounter; Gilead turns out to be a reincarnation of Patanjali, filled with the spirit of Brahman and after Indian monks search for him for ten ears, he is found and brought up in the secret and holy place of Rashimpur, in order to learn everything which is possible to learn to accomplish superhuman deeds as the revered and long-desired "Wearer of the Blue Hat”. Zharkov in contrast is the foster child of the antagonistic goddess of the darkness, and be-comes the "Prince of Death”. Both are trained to fight the battle of all battles. Zharkov will later become the feared supremo of "Nichevo”, a Soviet Russian Secret Service which acts in accordance with Stalinist legacy and is even feared by the KGB, whilst Gilead enters into the service of the CIA in order to combat Nichevo. Whenever he appears at international chess tournaments, not only does he achieve outstanding results, but also Russian agents mysteri-ously die there. People call him the "Grandmaster” only out of respect. The scenes of these historical battles, unknown to all official historical accounts, are Tibet, Poland, Moscow, Ber-lin and Havana. The fight rages on, up and down, both parties have to swallow the bitter pill of defeat, Rashimpur is destroyed, and with it the paternal monks. People with whom Gilead comes into contact drop like flies, indeed even he twice seems to be finished, and rises again.

Eventually it boils down to a big showdown in Cuba. In a memorable chess tournament, all the strands of the plot are brought together, Nichevo intend to murder Castro, and the CIA wants the Soviet world champion to flee to the West.

In this review, where we are obliged to concentrate on the chess mind, detailed analysis of content and structure must be dispensed with; the novel is too vibrant for that. This incredibly lively and ever-exciting book presents a patchwork of spy novel, political thriller and crime story, of the spirituality of the Far East and New Age wisdom and also of folk-tales and myth. It is instructive, shrewdly and speedily written; in every line, it reveals the professionalism of its creators: in short, it is highly complex, even if the main conflict is characterized by the simplest duality, or more precisely, a mixture of simplicity and complexity, in a way which can perhaps be nowhere better symbolized than in chess.


That does not mean that the vocabulary of the Cold War does not have an alienating and over-simplifying effect, especially on today’s reader, nor that much of it is over-exaggerated or simply meaningless fantasy. Perhaps the entire plot of the book is nonsense, but this can be compared with modern dietary habits: we swallow rubbish daily, as long as it is tasty and well-packaged. That is the secret behind the effect of this book.


In the field of chess literature, the work deserves pride of place, because it, unlike almost all others, including the classics, succeeds in combining the wisdom and inner tension of the game. That extends from Gilead´s "I am the game” to Zharkov´s "Nichevo is chess” via the notorious "flow” – "an inexplicable release in the mind of the player, when the game seemed to work itself automatically, without conscious thought"- or from imaginatively described over the board clashes, which read like a perfect crime story, and are in fact nothing other than this, from tension-charged dramas in tournaments to many wise insights into the game. Anyone who, having read the book, still does not feel like playing or learning chess on reading the book can no longer be let in on our great secret. Seen in this way, "Grandmaster” presents the most intense advertisement for chess that can be imagined, and is easily equal to dozens of theory books in terms of inspiring motivation.


It is of even more importance that chess is not misused as the means to an end, as is so often the case in literature, but serves as a universal metaphor with a potential for world-enlightenment. What happens over more than 400 pages is chess. This unheard-of elevation has here enjoyed credible success, as it symbolises a conflict of systems, which we mostly interpret as political antagonism: East vs. West, Red vs. Black, Black vs. White. But this only represents a reappearance of the eternal; one might say Heraclitean conflict. Through this, over-interpretation demands new plausibility and genuine metaphysical depth, insofar as an-cient powers stand directly opposed to each other, which then become a dialectical model of explanation. Metaphysical here means mythical. The use of chess metaphors is not artificial, it is essential, where it is not important, whether the story is fictitious or even nonsensical. Therefore this novel stands out from the flood of chess literature.

Warren Murphy/Molly Cochran: Grandmaster. London 1984. 428 p
Warren Murphy/Molly Cochran: High Priest (Grandmaster II).



--- Jörg Seidel, 25.11.2003 ---

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Copyright © 2002 by Christian Hörr