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The author is considered one of the finest and most subtle short-story writers to emerge during the thaw in Soviet literature that prevailed for roughly a decade following the death of Stalin in 1953. His back-ground, typical of his generation of Soviet intellectuals, bears heavily upon the content of his work. His parents were arrested during the devastating purges of the mid-1930s, and at the age of four he was placed in one of the notorious Soviet "Homes for Children of the Enemies of the People." His mother, the Jewish writer Eugenia Ginzburg, survived 18 years of prison, concentration camp and exile to write a chilling memoir, "Journey info the Whirlwind," which, like much of her sons current work, has been banned in the Soviet Union. Chess recently has been classified as a sport, but in this surrealistic story, now translated into English, Aksyonov uses a chess game to mirror a whole lifetime and its grim associations. His contest has no winner.
The Grand Master and a chance traveling companion played a game of chess in the compartment of an express train.
As the Grand Master entered the compartment, the man immediately recognized him and felt a sudden twinge of desire for an impossible victory over a grand master. Casting furtive, probing glances at the Grand Master, he thought: "Who can tell what may happen? What's so special about the guy? He looks so scrawny."
The Grand Master realized right away that he had been recognized and resigned himself: he was stuck now for at least two games. He knew the type—he had caught sight of the steep pink brows of such people often enough outside the windows of the Chess Club on Gogol Boulevard.
As the train started moving the Grand Master's traveling companion casually turned toward him.
"How about a little game of chess?" he said in a tone of affected innocence. "What do you say?"
"Well—all right," the Grand Master muttered.
The traveling companion leaned into the passage, hailed the woman conductor and asked for a chess set. As soon as it appeared he, with a haste that belied his casual air, dumped the pieces out of the box, picked up two pawns and held them up to the Grand Master concealed in his fists. On the bulging muscle between the thumb and index finger of his left hand were tattooed the initials G.O.
"Left," the Grand Master said. His lips twitched slightly: he was imagining the blows those fists could deliver, both left and right.
The Grand Master drew the white.