The Chess Garden
by Brooks Hansen
Review and Synopsis
You Can Skip This Section
Before I go on to tell you about this book, let me note to you that I have tried to put behind me the habit of coming upon something amazing like FLCL or Linux and immediately attempting to force its ingestion by my entire immediate family and all of my close friends. I pride myself as a matter of maturity on having put aside this behaviorism. It is therefore with perverse joy that I note that my sister Emily, a rock of maturity and sense, upon reading this book, immediately purchased 3 or 4 more copies from ebay and immediately began trying to force feed them to most of her literate friends and family. She hasn't had much luck; I am one of her few 'successes'. I should mention that to clarify all this, she recently graduated from Indiana Wesleyan University with a major in English and writing, so she is no dummy with regards to skill in writing. (She hates Asimov, sadly.)
Okay, But Read This Part
In the words of the New York Times Book Review, the Chess Garden is "A novel of ideas, a love story... a marvel" (From the cover). The book is the story of Dr. Uyterhoven's fantastic journey to the Antipodes, a island world of living game pieces and political struggle, as delivered to his friends and wife at home in several letters. It is also the story of Dr. Uyterhoven's life and work, both in the world of academics and in the chess-playing community that forms around the garden behind his home - the chess garden.
The book does not have any one theme; it is at once a story about politics, history, science, ethics and love, among anything else you care to mention. Mostly, though, it a book about religion and spirituality, about personal discovery of belief and purpose, and understanding of what is beyond the physical world. (I'm not trying to sound cheesy, it just works out that way. My melodramatic phrasings do not do the book justice.) In conveying all of this, The Chess Garden is a both a great literary work and a great work of inspiration and understanding.
A Closer Look and Commentary
Mild spoilers: If you are going to read the book, read these sparingly.
The layout of the book is thus: A great deal of the book is taken up with Dr. Uyterhoven's imaginary journey to and through the Antipodes, an island in some distant part of the globe, as conveyed in the letters to his family. This part of the book is largely fantasy, a la Alice In Wonderland, but with much more substance(may the dead forgive me). A seperate thread of the book is the story of the reading of the letters, as they are recieved week by week and as they are read by Mrs. Uyterhoven to the adults and children who frequent the chess garden. There is also the matter of the chess pieces, which also accumulate at the chess garden, but I will let you read the book for yourself on that account. The third and completing thread of the book is the story of Gustav Uyterhoven, beginning with his early education and continuing on to his marriage of Mrs. Uyterhoven and his academic career in subjects such as cell biology and foreign languages, and centering on two events - the death of his first and only child, and a brush with death through illness in a quarantined town several years subsequent, and a resulting spiritual transformation into the man who would later write the story of his journey to the Antipodes while doing humanitarian medical work in Africa. The three threads are braided together in the book toward a final, satisfying (Not sappy, not altruistic) conclusion.
Before discussing any of the ramifications of the book, a better explanation must be given of the Antipodes. The first is the matter of pieces; every citizen of the island is a piece of a game, ranging from dice to backgammon pieces, but the most prominent are the chess pieces. There are two types of pieces in the Antipodes; those which are in the exact likeness of a piece from a game, but given movement and intelligence; and chess pieces (only chess pieces) that take mostly human form, though maintaining their resemblance of some role on the chess board. There are different human chess sets present, each with an associated board, and these form the basis of a human society as cities and kingdoms. The non-human pieces (there are terms for the two types; I have forgotten them) take on the characteristics of the game they represent; dice bounce around, randomly; checkers pieces jump over and onto each other, et cetera.
Another important aspect of the Antipodes is of 'the goods' and the Vandals. The goods are best described as objects which metaphysically form a basis from which other objects of the same type derive their use and meaning. The good cane, for instance, is just a cane; but it is a fine cane as canes go, and representative of essential cane-ness. What happens if one of the goods is broken? This is precisely what happened to the loon; it was broken, and now no one remember how a loon is used, or what exactly it is intended to do. The Vandals are a group of pieces of the human-chess type who are out to acquire all of the goods and destroy them. The reasons behind this vary from person to person, but Dr. Uyterhoven is determined to work against them as soon as he hears of them.
The spiritual themes of the book are found in all three stories, but mostly in the allegorical citizens and events of the Antipodes. (I deny the book's similary to Nabokov, except in some similarity of writing style and attention to detail - Nabokov despised symbolism.) One of the most apparent themes is of the discarding of preconcieved truths in order to gain new understanding. This embodied in the desire of the vandals to break all of the goods, so that things can be reinvented, rediscovered and recreated, free of preconcieved notions. (The term functional fixedness from my recent psychology class comes to mind.)
Outside the letters, Dr. Uyterhoven becomes interested in the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg during his bout with illness in Klipdrift. His religious views and habits later in life are simple, and might seem quite similar to yourself or someone you know, but they are somewhat radical to the citizens of Dayton, Ohio, in which Dr. Uyterhoven and his wife reside. They attend several churches of varying denominations, including the Church of the New Jerusalem, and the doctor when pressed speaks only in confusing terms about purpose and reality, citing sources from the Baghavad Gita to The Aquarian Gospel Of Jesus Christ.
There are many other ideas and themes buried in the allegory of the Antipodes; I'm afraid I'll have to read the book again soon before adding any more.
Other books by Brooks Hansen include The Monsters Of Saint Helena, Boone (Co-authored with Nick Davis), and Perlman's Ordeal.