#RivetingReviews: Max Easterman reviews GAME OF THE GODS by Paolo Maurensig

Paolo Maurensig was born and lives in Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, in north-east Italy. He wrote his first novel, The Lüneburg Variation in 1993 when he was fifty; it was an immediate bestseller. It was a mystery, though a mystery with a distinct metaphysical flavour, whose narrator is only identified halfway through the story. The ‘variation’ is a chess move that Maurensig invented for the story, and chess has been a theme in his writing, with The Archangel of Chess now followed by Game of the Gods, which arrives on the bookstands amid the heightened interest in that game inspired by the TV series The Queen’s Gambit.

The book is based – very loosely – on the story of Mir Sultan Khan, who was taught Indian chess – chaturanga – by his father, and then learnt the European game from Sir Umar Hayat Khan, a local nawab and colonel in the British military, who was determined to prove Indian superiority over the British both at the game and in life: ‘If you do not accept me as your equal, I will do everything to prove myself superior to you.’ So he took Sultan Khan, a chess prodigy, under his wing and propelled him to brief fame in the early 1930s by bringing him to Britain, where he won the British Chess Championship three times. Here, the story diverges from real life, in which Sultan Khan vanished into obscurity (he actually returned home to till his farmlands). In the novel he re-emerges first during the Second World War, as a servant and then assistant to an English peer in his country house, where he becomes involved in secret war games; and second, in Manhattan, where he is befriended by an elderly heiress, who teaches him to read and write English and who then, quite unintentionally, brings about his downfall in a scandal that occurs after her death.

In the book, Sultan Khan has disappeared deliberately following the scandal and is only reluctantly persuaded to tell his story to an American journalist, who is bored sitting round Delhi, waiting for Indo-Pakistani hostilities to break out. He eventually runs Khan to earth in a poor Christian mission in the Punjab hills. What he is told is like a set of matryoshka dolls, a mystery within a mystery within a mystery, the metaphysical spine of which is itself – to Western eyes – a mystery: karma – often broadly defined as ‘destiny’. It is karma thatinevitably leads the journalist to Sultan Khan and just as inevitably leads him through his life experiences to his ultimate fate.

‘I belonged to the Shudra caste, that of servants … and I had to accept it … for how I had acted in previous lives. To rebel against one’s karma is [to] prolong its negative effects.’ 

But suffering is, in karma, also a prelude to happiness, and along the way, Sultan Khan realises he must ‘play the illiterate’ and be a ‘pawn on the political chessboard’. The tiger that kills his parents is just another ‘pawn of karma’. His successes at the chess table are many and unprecedented, but he is never awarded a chess title (which is also historical fact). He meets incredulity and racist anger at his prowess: 

‘a kind of restrained contempt … my stony face … ended up irritating them … how dare I assume an attitude of such blatant arrogance? None of them bothered to conceal their hostility towards me.’ 

When his patron, Sir Umar, returns to India, he is left as a kind of houseboy to a friend, Lord Clearwater. The chess game over, he must return to servitude. But when war breaks out, his knowledge of chaturanga – ‘the oldest war game in the world’ – propels him to new heights of notoriety, only to be unseated once again by karma

Paolo Maurensig gives Sultan Khan a voice of extraordinary calm as he narrates this gripping tale and provides a matter-of-fact explanation for each twist and mysterious turn, which deftly and almost subliminally underlines the significance of every revelation. Sultan Khan, says the journalist, seemed ‘completely estranged from reality … as if he were dreaming … an absent, impersonal tone’, which is perfectly reproduced in Anne Milano Appel’s flowing translation. 

The prosaic details of Khan’s life that inspired this novel are endued with a magical lightness even when he is at the nadir of his life, which makes this book a jewel of a read.

Reviewed by Max Easterman

GAME OF THE GODS

Written Paolo Maurensig

Translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel

Published by World Editions (2021)

Buy this title through the European Literature Network’s bookshop.org page.


Max Easterman is a journalist – he spent 35 years as a senior broadcaster with the BBC – university lecturer, translator, media trainer with ‘Sounds Right’, jazz musician and writer.

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Category: February 2021Reviews

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