On March 24, 1946, world chess champion Alexander Alekhine—infamous for his eccentric behavior as well as the ruthlessness of his playing style—was found dead in his hotel room in Estoril, Portugal. Written with the mood of a thriller, the insight of a poem, and a deep knowledge of the intricacies of chess, Paolo Maurensig’s Theory of Shadows traces the life and death of Alekhine—not so much trying to figure out whodunit as using the story of one infuriating and unapologetic genius to tease out “that which the novel alone can discover.”
ESTORIL, MARCH 1946
From his room on the first floor he came down to the still-deserted lobby—deserted as it had been the day before, the week before, the month before…Every morning, he hoped to see a row of suitcases by the entrance, ready to be transferred to various rooms by the porter; perhaps a little family seated on the sofa, busy chatting and browsing through leaflets and brochures. But he was disappointed once more. Nothing had changed.
He crossed the spacious lobby, heading quickly for the exit, uncomfortable with the idea that the entire apparatus of the hotel was for him alone. He had not yet grown accustomed to being the hotel’s only guest. Often, despite the staff’s extreme courtesy toward him, he had the painful feeling that he was in their way, that they were all just waiting for him to go, so they could finally shut down. For the moment, however, it was not possible for him to leave that place.
From the floor attendant to the young man assigned to room service, everyone called him “Dr. Alexandre”—no one tried to pronounce his full name and surname, combined with its lofty-sounding patronymic. The clerk at the reception desk, who had recorded his data, confirmed that he had been born in Moscow but was traveling with a French passport. And everyone followed his movements with open curiosity as well as a trace of suspicion.
He had been there for over a month now, and rumors about his habits were beginning to circulate among the hotel staff. The imposing figure and piercing eyes alone would have been enough to inspire awe; furthermore, he had a sharp, commanding voice, and although when requesting service he always addressed the staff with a courtesy bordering on affectation, his way of enunciating his words precisely, almost spelling them out, gave the impression that he was issuing a peremptory order, expecting not to have to repeat it.
The person who noticed this first was the chef, or, rather, the waiter instructed to deliver Alekhine’s message to him. When he had served him fish for the first time, the chef was told that the master hated any type of sea creature and was asked to cook him nothing but meat, preferably rare. Meat and sweets. And wine—red wine, of course. The chambermaid also had stories to tell: for days and days, in fact, she often found his bed untouched, as if Dr. Alexandre were spending entire nights without once lying down; and one day, when she accidentally entered without knocking, she had caught him sitting in his armchair, in front of a chessboard, engaged in avidly devouring some raw meat, bringing it to his mouth with his bare hands. None of the staff knew exactly who he was and what he was doing there, but everyone was quick to offer fanciful theories: for some he was a Russian spy, for others a Nazi in hiding.
None of the staff knew exactly who he was and what he was doing there, but everyone was quick to offer fanciful theories: for some he was a Russian spy, for others a Nazi in hiding.
Every morning, before lunch, Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Alekhin—this was the name that no one could pronounce—allowed himself a walk to the lighthouse. Along the coast, stretches of beach alternated with low rocky ridges. That day, the wind coming from the Atlantic was blowing hard, and the frequent heavy storms of the previous days had deposited mounds of seaweed ashore, along with fragments of shells and jellyfish reduced to wobbly masses of iridescent gelatin. The beach club was closed, and the so-called solarium—a wooden platform on stilts that in summer, judging by the postcards for sale at the hotel’s reception desk, was packed with strapping young men and pretty girls in bathing suits—seemed in the winter light like the frail skeleton of an antediluvian animal, its long legs sunk in the sand. The Hotel do Parque, where he was staying, towered above. Along the trail leading to the promontory where the lighthouse stood, the hotel’s baroque façade, covered with dazzling azulejos, continued to run alongside him, the way the moon appears to keep pace with us when it’s low on the horizon; only from the farthest point was he able to see part of the building’s inland side, the one facing the park, dense with maritime pines and tamarisk.
The beginning of spring was not far off, but swimming season would not begin before May; yet the hotel stayed open. In the dining room, tables and chairs were stacked along a wall; all his meals were served to him in his room. This room, marked by a brass plate reading number 43, was spacious enough, and had a large balcony overlooking the ocean: a magnificent view for anyone, though not for him, who viewed that infinite expanse of water as the very image of the unknown. Often, to ascertain whether there might be anyone else staying in that hermitage, he would walk from one end of his floor to the other, passing a succession of doors, all closed, all identical except for the numbers on their brass plates; sometimes he listened in front of one door or another, but he never heard the slightest sound. He’d also climbed to the upper floors, but there, too, he found doors and more doors, and not a single voice could be heard filtering out from them.
Though reduced in number, the staff were very efficient, and the chef in the kitchen was at his complete disposal. Maybe, he told himself, the hotel would soon fill with people—a conference, a seminar, or something like that. It had been a month since he’d exchanged a word with anyone, except for a few remarks with Manuel, the young man who served him his meals in his room. Time went by in a succession of long periods of sleeping and wakefulness. Day and night blurred, and the loneliness was now becoming unbearable.
The last doctor who had examined him had made an inauspicious diagnosis. The man had been explicit: his liver was in serious condition, he was suffering from acute duodenitis, and, besides that, he was beginning to show signs of angina. If he did not stop drinking excessively and smoking forty cigarettes a day, he would not live long.
“How long do I have?”
“A year at most.”
“And if I stop?”
“A few more.”
“Then maybe it’s not worth it,” he’d replied, laughing—though there was precious little that was amusing about the thought of death. In fact, fear of dying was always lurking in him, and no matter how hard he tried to bury it in the depths of his consciousness, it would crop up suddenly, usually at night, when, tormented by insomnia, he paced back and forth for hours in his room.
Eventually, however, when he was nearly broke, he was forced to stop drinking, and settle for the single bottle of Alentejo that was served with his meals.
• • •
Sometimes he thought about how he had come to be there, in Estoril, that last windy strip of Europe, the sole guest in a hotel open off-season. He still found it hard to believe that, at a time when everything had appeared on the verge of falling to pieces, an unexpected meeting had set him back on his feet. Almost like a sign from Providence.
Only a month earlier, in fact, he had been in Lisbon, but the management of the hotel where he was staying had literally kicked him out, confiscating his luggage until he had taken steps to settle the tab. That evening, he had wandered through the city, wondering where he would spend the night. He had only a few bills in his pocket: just enough to get a bite to eat along with a mug of beer. He had walked to the Ás de Ouros, a bar that stayed open until dawn. It was barely nine, and the place was still half empty. In the center of the room, a pair of elderly dancers shuffled around to the music of an accordion, while a few people were playing cards at some nearby tables, and there was even an area reserved for chess, though it was deserted. So he sat down in that corner and, after arranging the pieces on a board, began moving them distractedly, waiting for someone to come along and challenge him; since even chess was never played without a small wager, there was a chance he might earn an extra drink or two. He would certainly not take advantage of his skills, however, and would grant the opponent du jour a suitable advantage, as he always did.
He did not have to wait long. Someone came forward: a middle-aged man, ordinary-looking, modestly dressed; one would have said he was a sales representative for some insurance company, or else a city official.
“Eu posso ter a honra de jogar um jogo?”
The stranger spoke Portuguese correctly, though marked by an accent that suggested it was not his native language.
“De boa vontade.”
“But before we begin, I must warn you that I am unbeatable.”
The pieces were placed back on their starting squares. The man sat down heavily in front of Alekhine, carefully arranging the flaps of the overcoat he still had on. Then he proposed: “A beer?”
“For a beer,” Alekhine agreed. “But before we begin, I must warn you that I am unbeatable.”
The other man smiled, skeptical. “Really?”
“I therefore feel obliged to give you an advantage.”
“Which would be?”
“A Knight, a Bishop…even a Rook, if you like.”
“No, no, if I have to lose, I prefer to do so on equal terms.”
“As you wish. I warned you.”
The man did not seem too concerned. The toss was favorable to him; he was White. From the very first moves it was clear that he was not exactly a novice, but after a flawless opening, he suddenly lifted his King from its square and, as a sign of surrender, laid the piece on its side in the middle of the board. The gesture was irritating to Alekhine, even downright offensive.
“What does that mean? Why do you want to give up? Your position was still a solid one.”
The stranger laughed. “But my solid position would certainly not have lasted much longer against the world champion.”
At that point the man, after apologizing for his little deception, introduced himself by the name of Spitzler. He said he was a government official and that he had been specifically assigned to track Alekhine down. He informed the champion that a match for the world title had already been arranged: the challenger was a Russian, whose name, however, was still not known. Soon the news would appear in the international press. He then assured Alekhine of having settled his hotel bill, and lastly handed him an envelope that contained money, along with the address of the Hotel do Parque, in Estoril, where he could stay with all expenses paid. He would hear from Spitzler again very soon.
“To whom do I owe all this?”
“You still have friends,” the man said, and left.
Paolo Maurensig was born in 1943 in Gorizia, Italy. His first novel, The Lüneburg Variation, was a bestseller in Italy and an international sensation. He lives in Udine.
Anne Milano Appel is an award-winning translator whose translations from the Italian include Andrea Canobbio’s Three Light-Years, Goliarda Sapienza’s The Art of Joy, Claudio Magris’s Blindly, and Giovanni Arpino’s Scent of a Woman. Most recently her work was awarded the 2015 Italian Prose in Translation Award.