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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Game of the Gods

Paolo Maurensig

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To purchase Game of the Gods

Title: Game of the Gods
Author: Paolo Maurensig
Genre: Novel
Written: 2019 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 250 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: Game of the Gods - US
Game of the Gods - UK
Game of the Gods - Canada
Il gioco degli dèi - Italia
  • Italian title: Il gioco degli dèi
  • Translated by Anne Milano Appel

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Our Assessment:

B : an incredible life-story as its foundation, but Maurensig layers way too much more (too thinly) on it

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
il Giornale . 19/4/2019 Fabrizio Ottaviani
la Repubblica . 24/11/2019 Gianni Clerici

  From the Reviews:
  • "Da sempre ossessionato dal passatempo strategico per eccellenza, ne Il gioco degli dèi Paolo Maurensig tira una linea che va dall'India britannica all'Inghilterra." - Fabrizio Ottaviani, il Giornale

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Game of the Gods is essentially bookended by excerpts from the notebooks of a (fictional) Norman La Motta, describing how, as a reporter for The Washington Post, he came to be in the Punjab in 1965, as India and Pakistan were finding themselves drawn: "towards the abyss of a bloody conflict". When someone mentions that "the border that passes through Mittha Tawana" will be a weak point, La Motta perked up because of its connection to a person whom he had long been curious about but who had disappeared from view a decade earlier, after: "a scandal in New York": it was the birthplace of Malik Mir Sultan Khan. [While a novel, some of Maurensig's story is fact-based; oddly, among the facts he changes is the location of this village (and nearby Sargodha), putting it: "about sixty miles from Delhi" (and on the border), when in fact it is deep in Pakistan itself.]
       Years earlier, La Motta had recognized Sultan Khan's name when it had (again): "been thrust into the bleak limelight of world attention" in New York in the mid-Fifties, because La Motta had been a chess enthusiast as a youngster and his favorite player was (as it turned out) the same Sultan Khan. He had repeatedly tried to look into the man's unusual life, but never been able to learn much more about him, but now opportunity presented itself, and he headed to Mittha Tawana -- where he then (nearby) has the good fortune to find Sultan Khan, and to gain an audience with him. The bulk of the novel then consists of Sultan Khan's account of his incredible life story.
       Malik Mir Sultan Khan is an historical figure. He lived 1905 to 1966 -- so we know La Motta reached him shortly before his passing -- and was a phenomenal chess prodigy. His talents were recognized early on by Sir Malik Umar Hayat Khan, more or less accurately described by Maurensig as: "the largest landowner in all of Punjab". Sir Umar Khan took Sultan Khan under his wing, and fostered his talents; after Sultan Khan won the 1928 all-India chess championship Sir Umar Khan took him with him to England, where he spent most of the next five years; among Sultan Khan's successes was winning the British Chess Championships three times, as well as beating the great Capablanca. The real-life Sultan Khan returned to India with Sir Umar Khan in 1933 and soon later seems to have abandoned playing chess publicly; the remainder of his life seems to have passed unremarkably in and around Sargodha (where La Motta will report finding him, in the novel), where he then also died.
       Maurensig takes the basic facts of Sultan Khan's life and spins a larger fiction out of it. He begins by giving Sultan Khan considerably humbler origins than they actually seem to have been, and makes the discovery of his remarkable talents even more surprising. (A man-eating tiger stalking the locals also plays a significant role in this part of the story .....) A nice touch is that he has Sultan Khan begin not as a chess prodigy, but rather a talent at the ancient version of the game, chaturanga.
       Sir Umar Khan makes the then-orphaned (in the novel ...) Sultan Khan a servant in his household -- while continuing to help foster his chess talents. In Game of the Gods Sultan Khan always remains keenly aware of his position in the world-order: he remains, always, a servant, working in support of others. This is the role he has always been destined to play -- and, in India's rigid caste system, the one which he feels he belongs in. Appropriately, the Indian version of the game which he excelled at has depths that the Western version doesn't:

     Chaturanga, then, was a game, of course, but also a philosophical text. It embraced the arts, the trades, the religious hierarchy, the social order, and the division into castes.
       The years in England, as described in the novel, seem to correspond most closely to Sultan Khan's actual experiences, and the account here makes for an interesting chess-story -- as Sultan Khan's actual successes were indeed remarkable. Interesting, too, -- and plausible -- are Sultan Khan's observations about the difficulties he has with the game -- as well as the consequences (positive and negative) in falling back on what he was most comfortable and familiar with:
Castling, for example, a move as bizarre as it was useful to defend one's king, was completely foreign to Indian rules, and as a result it was difficult for me to apply it in the thick of the game. So, very often, following the chaturanga's strategy, which did not include the use of castling, I would leave my king in the center and strengthen both flanks; this gave my opponents the impression that they could easily penetrate my defense, thereby forcing them to expose themselves in turn.
       (The real Sultan Khan, not having learned chess by the book, had a notoriously weak opening game, never mastering the textbook openings, but was apparently very strong -- if unorthodox -- in his middle game.)
       Similarly, he describes things like the required game-notation, or the use of a chess clock, being novelties that he had great difficulty adjusting to. Nevertheless, he quickly proved himself one of the strongest chess players of his time (as did the actual Sultan Khan):
My career was meteoric, like the luminous trail of a Bengal light. It lasted for three years or so.
       Quite suddenly, Sultan Khan then found himself no longer being invited to any tournaments of significance, and with his master no longer as enthusiastic about promoting his career he returned more to the role of servant, following Sir Umar Khan around: "from one city to another, from one country to another ...". (This is where the novel begins to diverge strongly from Sultan Khan's actual path, as he in fact simply had returned with Sir Umar Khan to India in 1933.) After a few years Sir Umar Khan finally decides on returning to India for his health, but leaves Sultan Khan behind, installing him in the Surrey household of a Lord Clearwater (who himself is, for years, not much in attendance there).
       A bored Sultan Khan with little to do there slides naturally into the role of servant -- eventually taking over the role of chauffeur, driving the Lord's Rolls Royce -- while for a long time the house remains quiet, even as the world around descends into war.
       Sultan Khan does not ever concern himself with politics much, but already in India was of course confronted with the rising tensions between the locals and the British colonial masters. While in England, he also notes that the struggle to free India of the British yoke had led some to go so far as to flirt with the rising enemy of the British in Germany .....
       When Lord Clearwater returns to Surrey he brings a big project with him, and invites a dozen guests to participate. He's part of so-called cultural association called 'The Masters of War', who previously: "had set out to strategically analyze the great battles of history" -- and now, with a world war underway, can wargame along in real time. Sultan Khan has some insights into some of the strategies -- after all, what is this except for chess or chaturanga on a larger scale ? -- and soon enough his: "expertise in the game was exploited". This is among the more intriguing story-lines in the novel, and it's a shame Maurensig doesn't do a bit more with it; as is, it makes for a fun little episode -- if also then somewhat conveniently and quickly swept aside.
       After the war, Sultan Khan finds his way to New York. He winds up becoming a taxi driver -- his Rolls Royce chauffeuring-skills coming in handy -- and eventually he is hired by one of his fares, the blind Mrs. Abbott, to be a live-in chauffeur of sorts.
       We know of Cecilia Abbott from journalist Norman La Motta's introductory chapter, and how there was a scandal surrounding this: "unscrupulous opportunist" who took advantage of the wealthy woman. As Sultan Khan tells it, their relationship was a simple but close one, he acting as her driver and general companion while also living in her apartment; she was his: "master, my mentor, my mother, my bride, my spiritual guide". When she died -- she was already very old -- she left him the use of her apartment for as long as he wished to remain, and she gave him her Rolls Royce -- provisions of her will challenged by her heirs, and the cause of the whipped-up scandal.
       This, too, -- the time Sultan Khan spent with Mrs. Abbott, and New York in those years -- is a somewhat interesting storyline -- if also completely fictional -- but ultimately also a rather odd (semi-)final adventure for our protagonist.
       All in all, in adds up to a strange sort of book. Sultan Khan's own life is rich enough material for a novel -- complete with the mystery of his apparently essentially abandoning chess in the mid-1930s and living a quiet life for the next three decades -- but Maurensig embellishes it far beyond that, both before and especially after the brief chess-success phase. The origin-story is built up patiently enough, and helps in forming an image of the character and, in essence, where he's coming from, explaining much of who he is. But it's a shame that, for example, the war-gaming isn't played out at greater length. And while the time in New York with the wealthy Mrs. Abbott is interesting, it's a somewhat awkward fit with the larger story. Each of the three major life-stages abroad -- his time as a chess-playing champion; his time in the Surrey household; and his time in New York -- could, by itself, have been the heart of the novel, but by spreading Sultan Khan's story out the way he does Maurensig waters the whole down into a less satisfactory (and less convincing) life-story. It's not that the ideas aren't good, but it is material for three novels, and doesn't work nearly as well all in one, not the way Maurensig presents it.
       The incredible career of Sultan Khan - burning so brightly but also so briefly, with considerable mystery as to why he withdrew so suddenly and completely from competitive chess -- would be more than enough for a novel. Maurensig's trying to make so much more of his life has some potential, too, but the result here is an all too simply episodic heap, Sultan Khan reduced to the far too common modern-day literary figure of happening to have witnessed so many significant odds and ends of history. To really succeed with this, Maurensig would have had to make considerably more of these other stations.
       As is, Game of the Gods is fast and consistently entertaining. Even the unusual side-episodes are colorful and interesting, and Sultan Khan is a memorable leading character (not least in his general tendency to subservience); it's certainly a solid-enough read. It just would have seemed to hold the potential for so much more .....
       (The framing device, of journalist La Motta describing how he came to this account and his conversations with Sultan Khan around it, adds yet another layer, of course, but it's a reasonable enough one, and doesn't get in the way of too much, while also filling in a few of the remaining blanks.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 January 2021

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Game of the Gods: Reviews: Other books by Paolo Maurensig under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Italian author Paolo Maurensig was born in 1943.

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© 2021-2022 the complete review

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