Book Review: The Death’s Head Chess Club
by John Donoghue
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
There’s a good deal of Hollywood-style kitsch wafting around John Donoghue’s novel The Death’s Head Chess Club, enough of it so that even the most sympathetic reader can’t help but notice it all. Donoghue is nearly 60 years old, and this is his debut novel; the author does not come from a lifetime of playing chess, but his book is centered on the game. And the book’s plot positively reeks of cheap contrivance: the plot split into ready-made time periods – the 1940s and the 1960s – and revolves around the attempts of an enlightened SS officer named Paul Meissner to improve morale at Auschwitz concentration camp by instituting a chess tournament among the Nazis stationed there. Rumor in the camp suggests one of the prisoners, a man named Emil Clement, is especially skilled at the game, and Meissner instructs him to play against a chosen Nazi champion, with the stakes being the safety of one of Clement’s friends in the camp. In the 1960s sections of the novel, Clement and Meissner meet again by chance in Amsterdam, and their story both continues and deepens in flashback.
It all seems so cloyingly manipulative that the only thing missing is a John Williams score playing in the background. This would be irritating under any circumstances, but it’s downright angering when the fulcrum of so much kitsch is so much brutal suffering: that life in Auschwitz (and the nearly unspeakable larger history against which it played out) should be used in such a way acts almost as a double trivialization.
To his credit, Donoghue on some level must have been aware of this while writing his book. There are scenes of genuine complicated pathos, and his main characters, particularly the tormented Meissner, are well-drawn. And even the fact that the novel is full of over-writing could be readily forgiven – what debut novel isn’t, after all? – if the cliches weren’t happening against such a backdrop. When reading a scene set around Auschwitz’s infamous prisoner transport, readers should be wincing only at the story being told, not at the trite and heavy-handed manner of the telling:
In one truck there is hesitation. A hand reaches up to the nearest person – an elderly man – and pulls at him roughly. He falls heavily onto the concrete below and rises uncertainly. He looks like he has broken an arm. One of the uniformed men calmly unholsters a pistol and holds it to the old man’s head. A shot rings out. A woman screams. Her cry sounds disembodied, as if some banshee is shrieking in the dark beyond the floodlights. The body is kicked off the platform to fall beneath the wheels of the train.
The 1940s sections of the novel in particular suffer from the first-time historical novelist’s urge to stuff the fruits of their research into the mouths of their characters. This failing is enabled by Donoghue’s opening characterization of Meissner as a newcomer to the camp system, someone who would therefore need to be given great dumps of exposition from the old hands at Auschwitz:
‘Trains arrive daily,’ the Kommandant said, in a low, matter-of-fact tone, ‘sometimes two a day. Typically we can expect a thousand to fifteen hundred head on each train. They are compelled to leave their belongings on the unloading ramp. When they are inducted into the camp, they are relieved of their clothes and small possessions, like wristwatches or jewelry. Everything becomes the property of the Reich. It is all brought here to Kanada. All sorts of things find their way here. There is one Scharfuhrer who spends every day doing nothing but sorting foreign currency. Every month it is sent to the Reichsbank where it is exchanged for Reichsmarks and the proceeds come back to the SS. Another is an expert jeweller who picks out choice items and grades precious stones. Gold and silver items are melted down.’
The novel also, disastrously, has footnotes. When one character offhandedly refers to one of the camp’s prisoners as a Muselmann, for instance, this footnote appears at the bottom of the page:
Slang used in Auschwitz to refer to prisoners who were so debilitated by starvation and abuse that they had lost the will to live: little more than skin-covered skeletons, wrapped in tattered blankets, they would sit or stand and stare vacantly, unaware, lost in the emptiness of their wretched existence, drifting aimlessly in the place between life and death, impervious to shouts and truncheon blows from Kapos to make them move. The word is thought to have come from a supposed resemblance to the kneeling posture adopted by Muslims in prayer.
Since Donoghue is a first-time novelist, he might be forgiven for not knowing how completely anathema footnotes are to a work of fiction, how fatally they break the spell that is the novelist’s main (some would say sole) duty to the reader, and how they likewise betray a disturbing lack of imagination (there isn’t one footnote in this novel that, for instance, Gore Vidal wouldn’t have found trivially easy to incorporate into the narrative itself). It’s not a completely convincing excuse – debut novelist or not, Donoghue presumably has read the odd novel or two in his life – but it’s convincing enough. But what about the editorial team Donoghue thanks in his Acknowledgements? Neither James Roxburgh, Belinda Jones, nor Ileene Smith thought to tell their debut author that footnotes stultify a novel?
Ultimately, it’s hard not to close The Death’s Head Chess Club with a deep sense of frustration. Whenever they crop up in this book, Donoghue’s storytelling instincts look obviously sharp, and he has several of the novelist’s skill-set already well-developed (dramatic pacing especially – he’s probably a first-rate after-dinner raconteur). But the actual novel he’s produced reads so much like it was taken in whole job-lots straight from central casting that it’s almost impossible to read it without looking ahead to a Ron Howard movie yet to be cast.