Thursday, May 30, 2013

Book review: The King of Trees by Ah Cheng

Originally appeared in the 7/26/10

The King of Trees by Ah Cheng. Translated from the Chinese by Bonnie S. McDougall, New Directions, 208 pages, $14.95.

Chess has been of service to Western art and literature for a thousand years, mined, since it arrived in Europe about a millennium ago, for sport, psychology/psychopathology, and a capacity to reflect changes in cultural style. (There is such a thing as romantic chess, for example, parallel to romanticism in poetry and music. Is there such a thing as romantic poker, cribbage, blackjack or rummy?)

Instances of chess being raveled into our culture abound. To pick a few: In one medieval painting, Tristan and Iseult quaff their fateful love potion over a game. In another, a Christian and a Muslim, in what was still Moorish Spain, play peacefully, perhaps recalling the fact that it was the Arabs who brought chess to Europe. Skipping freely over centuries and media, we find that Samuel Beckett garnishes his 1938 novel, “Murphy”, with an absurd game of chess, set in a mental ward. (Not the first or the last time chess and madness compete for space). Then, as if to announce the dawn of the digital age —three decades before Garry Kasparov actually lost to IBM’s Deep Blue — Hal, the computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” checkmates its human opponent. It’s hard to resist mentioning that in Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” the angel of death likewise mates the knight he has come for, in advance of concluding mortal business with him.
But chess is a global pastime. More people play Xiangqi (Chinese Chess) than the variant we equate with the game. Yet for all its popularity, if Xiangqi plays a proportionate role in the arts of Asia, the results are not apparent, or perhaps, so far as literature is concerned, await translation. That’s one reason, among others, that the Chinese writer Ah Cheng’s recently reissued novella “The King of Chess,” is so special.

In it, the author probes chess much as the best of Western writers have. He asks of Wang Yisheng, its main character, and a Xiangqi prodigy, the same sort of question that has been asked often enough, say, of Bobby Fischer: Would he have been happier if he had devoted himself less to the game? Did chess empower his demons or give him, at least for a time, a defense against them? Wang Yisheng’s own response to such questions is: “How may one abolish gloominess? Only with the art of chess.”

Wang Yisheng perfects his game, and abolishes his gloom, in the aftermath of China’s cultural revolution, when he and other so-called Educated Youth are sent to the countryside to learn from the peasantry how to shed their stubborn bourgeois ways. Most never had bourgeois ways to start with. Wang Yisheng, for example, grew up a few grains of rice, a few drops of oil, away from starvation. When someone asks him, “Who did you learn your chess from?” he answers: “From the world”. In fact, he learned from outcasts and scavengers at the fringe of Chinese society, sharpening his skills by playing blindfold in garbage dumps.

His teachers cared about the game to the detriment of learning how make a living because, to their minds, it expressed values older and deeper than those of Maoist politics. One, for example, praises Wang Yisheng for playing as their “Daoist ancestors,” might have wanted, and for understanding that, “To do nothing is the Way, and . . . also the invariant principle of chess.” The old master Wang Yisheng defeats in the culminating match of the story praises the Educated Youth for sending his “dragon to rule the waves,” adding that the, “scholar-generals of past and present could do no more than this,” and thanking him for  demonstrating that “the art of chess has not wholly degenerated in China.”

Not the sort of language you’re likely to find in most chess manuals, this evaluation of chess is one of the ways Ah Cheng expresses resistance to Maoist mania. “The King of Chess” was published in China in 1984. Reflecting the author’s own experience as an Educated Youth, it was enormously popular. Ah Cheng followed it with two other novellas, “The King of Children” and “The King of Trees”, collected and re-issued under the latter title.

There’s startlingly good writing in all of them, though “The King of Trees” is flawed to some degree by a sort of sentimentalism, in which nature itself, in the form of ancient massive trees, sentenced to be cut down by the authorities, seem to speak back to Maoism. We are lucky to have these fine, powerful tales in English, and not only because one of them provides a new take on how and where chess can matter.

Harvey Blume is a writer, now in Cambridge. He likes chess for the game itself and for the way cultures come through it.

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