"The Death's Head Chess Club"


John Donoghue


The game of chess has generally had a rough ride in the media particularly in films and television.  So often one sees the board set up incorrectly and moves made that are impossible in a real game.  Usually all one sees is a player making a move, calling mate, and then exiting left.  Books have been a little kinder, but then chess has played a bit part.  I can only recall one novel, written, I believe by Evelyn Parkinson Keyes, that used the life of Paul Morphy as the main theme.  Now we have a book in which the game plays a critical part, written by an author that certainly knows the difference between a pawn and a bishop.  Not only does he give accurate descriptions of the course of games, he gives each chapter a title of chess terms.  Thus we have chapter headings of Zugswang, The Najdorf Variation,The Munich Gambit etc.  Surprisingly, the contents of the chapters bears some relationship with these titles!.  You may be thinking that this is a book of chess instruction but it most certainly is not so.  Chess forms the theme against a backdrop of the Auschwitz death camp during the latter phases of the second world war.

The main characters are a French inmate of the camp and a German officer responsible for some of the camps administration.  In the course of his duties he is ordered to find some diversion that will entertain the camp staff and he sets up a chess club and organizes a tournament. However, he discovers that the Frenchman is lauded by the inmates as a chess player of superb ability and consequently he is cajoled and bullied into playing games against the German officers.  But there is a condition of his participation, for each victory he will save the life of an inmate scheduled for the gas chambers.  This presents him and the officer with a number of problems as he eventually discovers that some of the prospective victims have been nominated because they will eventually provide the guards with benefits if they survive until the end of the war.  This is just one of the problems facing the Frenchman who is tormented into deciding whether he should win or lose the games. 

Both he and the German officer survive and meet again in Amsterdam many years later when the chessplayer is involved in a zonal tournament to decide on a contender for the world championship.  By now the German has become a Roman Catholic priest and is suffering from terminal leukaemia and he is seeking some form of reconciliation with the chessplayer.

Not only does the author describe the chess scenes with considerable credibility but his description of the life of the inmates within the death camps displays the deep research he must have made of these harrowing circumstances.  Here is a sample of his observations:

"Alarm is spreading through the camp.  Typhus.  It skulks in the shadows of every door looking for a way in.  It is a pestilence feared by all.  In the washrooms, there are signs in many different languages.  One louse is enough to kill you - for that is how typhus ensnares its victims and spreads its foulness through the camp.  The signs are among the many absurdities of Auschwitz, because the procedures for the prevention of lice are laughable.  For the inmates hot showers and soap are as rare as a visit from the Pope, yet lice are a deadly enemy, so when the inmates have the time, they scour each other's bodies for the tiny creatures, squeezing the life out of them between two fingernails.  But now, it seems there is an outbreak in Block 51. 

Of course the camp is better informed than the SS doctors; all the inmates know the outbreak started two days ago.  A man from 51 went to the infirmary after evening roll call.  At first the symptoms are inconclusive.  A day later, there were two more men from 51 with the same symptoms.

The SS doctors take no chances.  On their command, the fate of the men is sealed; all three are sent to the gas chamber."

Jews are not the only inmates.  The Nazis took the opportunity to incarcerate criminals and others suffering from mental and physical disorder, and these are recognised by different insignia sewn on their sparse clothing.  As loathsome as it is, the author paints an extremely creditable impression of life in such camps.

Although it seems that this is Donoghue's first excursion into the authorship of novels, his style is very fluent making the book very easy to read.  His research is very ably carried out and makes a very plausible narrative.  It is to be hoped that this will not be his only venture into fiction and Atlantic Books may take considerable credit in discovering and presenting this to a discerning following of this genre.

Bill Frost

February 2015.b  b