Paolo Maurensig: The Lüneburg Variation

Zweig’s endgame, Maurensig’s opening sequence.

Lüneburg Variation is a first novel, Chess Story was Zweig’s last; and one cannot really read Lüneburg Variation without recalling Chess Story. Both explore the same themes of Nazi savagery, moral complexity, and the maniacal passion for chess; but Maurensig paints it in darker shades.

Lüneburg Variation’s striking first line sets a sinister tone: “They say chess was born in bloodshed”; on the second page a murder is committed; on the seventh, a confession.

And then we meet the players behind the game and we are brought to a time when Austria was gripped by anti-Semitism, and how the world of chess, peopled by masters of Jewish descent, was purged from Jews to “recover its purity.”

For a book that’s only slightly longer than Zweig’s novella, it has a handful of indelible scenes, but what will stay with me is a particular chess lesson. After a protégé loses to his teacher, the master asks, “What if this has been caused by your inattention?”

But the attention of which the master spoke referred to something beyond the chessboard. That page made me close the book to ponder on those words that endorsed seeing rather than merely looking. I sipped at my postprandial coffee, and thought of life, and I thought of reading. How inattentive we can be to the world around us! How inattentive we can be as readers!

As I read on, the pieces came together and I was chilled by a realization. What if this was a question meant to haunt generations? Genocide, injustice, cruelty are things that can only be perpetrated by the indifference and inattention of many.