Books

The Chess Set in the Mirror by Massimo Bontempelli

Katie Haegele
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

Chess Set opens up a realm of imagination and insight


The Chess Set in the Mirror

Publisher: Paul Dry Books
ISBN: 1589880315
Contributors: Sto, Estelle Gilson
Author: Massimo Bontempelli
Price: $9.95
Length: 114
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 2007-04
Amazon

Chess is a game of thoughtfulness, foresight, and the art of predicting what will happen next.

That's when you're playing it, though. What about when you're making friends with the pieces, which can walk and talk and are almost as tall as you are?

In that case, the predicting thing kind of goes out the window.

The Chess Set in the Mirror was written in 1922 by Massimo Bontempelli (1878-1960), an Italian writer who was a major early practitioner of magical realism, fiction in which impossible things happen in an otherwise ordinary world, leaving you with the sense that maybe they're not impossible after all.

The book opens with a boy narrating his own story, though he never tells us his name. He's been shut in a room by himself where there's nothing but a mirror and a chess set. All is quiet and boring until the chess pieces invite him to step out of the room and join their reflections in the mirror. He closes his eyes and when he opens them, he's on the "infinite plain" of the world inside the mirror.

There he makes an enchanting discovery. When no one is around to notice, the images reflected in the mirror can get up and do as they please, living a whole other life inside the mirror.

And it isn't only this mirror that has this power, as the White King of the chess set explains. All mirrors contain infinite space, which houses and preserves all the images they've ever reflected. After people see their reflections, their image lives on in there forever -- never aging, with no needs to see to or future to worry about. Walking around in this dreamy place, the boy meets his grandmother as a young girl, a thief who once broke into their house, and, of course, all the animated rooks and pawns.

The weirdness deepens from there, with sounds and sensations that lead the boy through a world that's mostly empty since, as the White King tells him, no objects can end up there, only people who have the ability to see their own images.

There are interesting polarities at work in this quirky story -- the idea of mirror images, of course, and the black and white of the chess set.

But the salient detail is the second life of the imagination. The boy squeezes his eyes shut and imagines himself into this other world, but once he's there, his creativity takes over, and what happens is a surprise even to him.

Estelle Gilson's translation is a tidy one, with little of the awkwardness that can be a stumbling block in the smooth reading of a story brought over from another language. Her rendering is spare, if strange, and even manages some gentle humor.

The result is a story told in a voice that's charmingly direct, sweetly self-referential ("So there you have it -- right away, in the second chapter -- the reason for the title of this story") and more than a little trippy, like a kid-friendly Kathy Acker. Like all good books for children, it also has unusual insights into childhood itself: " ... when you're ten years old, standing or sitting are exactly the same."

Paul Dry, the publisher of this edition, has included Sergio Tofano's lovely ink drawings throughout the book. Pictures of fruit trees, witty figures, and faces drawn in just a few lines evoke the early 20th century, which is the time we are told the boy's adventure takes place, though the story itself is era-less.

At only around 100 pages and with chapters of just a few pages each, there's something pleasing about the slenderness of this volume, a kind of self-awareness of its own possibilities and limitations that I wish more books had. In that sense, The Chess Set in the Mirror feels a lot like a strange dream you might have. You know it can't have taken up even one whole night's sleep, but upon waking, it feels epic.

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