A SNEAK PREVIEW OF LOUIS ARMAND’S THE COMBINATIONS IN 8 MOVES, by David Vichnar [PART 2 OF 4]
Coming this May in 8 octaves, 64 chapters and on 888 pages, Louis Armand’s The Combinations is a “work of attempted fiction” that combines the beauty & intellectual exertion that is chess, with the panorama of futility & chaos that is Prague (a.k.a. “Golem City”), across the 20th-century and before/after.
MOVE 3: OPENING GAMBIT (SKLAV DEFENSE).
A bundle of documents from the Prof’s inheritance shows up at Němec’s doorstep, strongly resembling the famed Voynich Manuscript, one of the great conundrums of recorded time, composed by an unknown author, in an unknown language. Despite the various attentions of “occultists, amateur riddlers, pseudoscientists & crackpots of every stripe from the four corners of the globe, each obsessed with a Dark Ages awaiting illumination, Secrets Most Profound still to be unconcealed,” the Voynich manuscript remains an indeciphered-indecipherable Sphinx in Němec’s path, “a real bedroom diva, who expects to be made a big production of & undressed like a floorshow before she’ll condescend to let you tickle that prize riddle of hers.” But what about all those columns filled with numbers and crossed-out names? Feat. A certain Faktor but not a certain Němec?
THE MAN IN THE MOON
There was an old Gnostic theory that said the world was created by an imbecile who got it all wrong. According to the same theory, man’s original purpose on earth was to clean up the mess. This task was supposed to be achieved by means of an unfortunately inexact science — namely, the understanding of the secret dualism of good and evil, through the revelation of eternal symmetries. Problem was, the world as it’d been created was lopsided, incomplete. It was the idea of the Gnostics that knowledge alone could provide the missing part & through it man would become the great engineer of the world’s correction — its harmonisation. Harmonisation would lead to symmetry, which would lead to the understanding of the secret dualism, which would lead to the knowledge necessary to bring about… harmonisation. Like a dog licking its own arse. This roundabout doctrine, so the story went, later informed the genesis of the alchemical sciences, from which evolved by increments the socalled Age of Reason — but also its irrational outgrowths: fascism, eugenics & the cult of the übermensch. Perhaps that was why the earth still tilted on its axis, because humanity, too, had failed to set things straight.
When Němec returned to his apartment that Thursday afternoon, he found Mrs Falová, the ancient Jehova’s Witness who lived on the sixth floor, pulling herself up the stairs on her hands & knees, one step at a time, a brownyellow plaid shopping trolley with spoked wheels lying at her side. It’d become a regular occurrence, Blecha had explained, ever since the old lady’s bitch of a granddaughter took away her zimmerframe, to keep her from going out on the street & causing havoc among the general populace (the way they do). Whenever she wasn’t padlocked in her apartment, old Misses Falová would crawl down to the bottom landing, sit there half the day, then crawl back up. Sometimes she’d crawl as far as the Chink’s with her shopping trolley dragging behind, just for an outing. The Meals-on-Wheels man brought her garlicsoup, guláš & dumplings every other day. They’d sit down on the steps together like it was a Sunday picnic & afterwards he’d take the empty camping pots away & she’d have her afternoon nap before crawling the six flights back up. Always very politely declining offers of assistance from the weird chap in the black suit & bowler hat.
As on this occasion. Němec greeted the old lady as he passed her on the way to the elevator. Why she never used it, he couldn’t figure out. Old school. Or maybe she just enjoyed the exercise. Drop in on some of the other biddies along the way. Misses Falová mumbled something in reply, groping for the next step, pulling the shopping trolley along beside her. He watched the poor thing for a moment before letting the elevator door swing closed behind him. One day, he supposed, they’d come & take her off to a recycling clinic somewhere. Or she’d simply perish, locked inside her apartment by her bitch of a granddaughter so as not to dirty up the stairwell, & eventually the smell’d alert the rest of the world to the fact. They’d pile her old dusty belongings on the sidewalk for the local junkpeddlers to cart away. Greasy picklejars, mottled brocade, a cracked chamberpot, plastic shoppingbags stuffed with more plastic shoppingbags, horsehair blankets, bits & pieces of mismatched china, knives & forks in brown flyspeckled cardboard boxes reeking of camphor, the whole sad spectacle of life’s dénouement into useless artefacts.
It was with such pleasant thoughts in mind that Němec found an unexpected parcel waiting on his doorstep.* He surveyed the corridor but there was no sign of anybody. A flicker, perhaps, behind the peephole in the door at the head of the landing. The old spy woman with the meat-tenderiser. He prodded the parcel with his walkingstick. It was quite inert. He stooped to pick it up, weighing it in his hand. It was flat, rectangular, wrapped in standard-issue plain brown waxpaper, sellotape & twine. No name of sender, no return address — though someone had taken the trouble of misspelling his name on a piece of white card. All caps. Typed. NEMOC, it said. E instead of an Ě. Ne–motz. O instead of E. Nemo. No-one he knew, hehe. Could only be this Non-Entity was supposed to be himself, unless it really meant Nemoc. As in: disorder, malady, illness, sickness, ailment, disease, contagion. Anthrax, just to take a more obvious example, or alien spores, or the android mind-control code. Skull&crossbones stuff. Warning:
He ogled the parcel with a sense of foreboding/presentiment/apprehension.
Frankly, Němec couldn’t think of any good reason why such a thing should turn up on his doorstep at all. Far as he knew, the people at the Golem City Teaching Hospital weren’t making hand deliveries that year. Like maybe they’d kept part of his brain that got chopped out while he was under anaesthesia & figured he might want it for a keepsake, hehe. He shook the parcel. Didn’t feel like sloshy brain matter, more like a book. Maybe the Bugman thought he needed some reading matter to expand his mind a bit, hoho, figured he’d appreciate the little joke with his name. Or, scary thought, perhaps there wasn’t a reason for it at all, but chance had dictated it? One day something falls from the sky, or is born backwards, or turns up on a doorstep, unexpected & undesired — an infant in a reed basket, a wrong augury, a parcel of ill-omen. The gifthorse’s proverbial.
‘Next thing,’ Němec told himself, ‘you’ll expect me to show gratitude.’
Inside the apartment he switched on the recordplayer & went to work brewing some coffee. Stravinsky’s Pétrouchka scratched away in the background. The milk he’d opened the day before was already soured, so he drank his Sierra Maestra black, too lazy to go across the street again. He left the parcel on the kitchenette counter & shuffled across to his armchair, shifted the typewriter out of it & eased down, sipped the coffee & winced — it took four sugar cubes to even begin to make it drinkable. He couldn’t figure how people did it to themselves. Masochists.
Němec sat there nursing his cup of poison, listening to Stravinsky slowly fade out into the sound of the walls breathing, wondering what the hell to do with the rest of the day or the rest of his life. He thought about Blecha wanting his ashes scattered up there on the roof. On his magic mountain. You reach the end of the climb, then what? Take in the view for the remainder of your days while the boredom settles in & eventually, with the right kind of positive outlook, you might even grow indifferent enough to find peace, satori & all that. Have to keep an eye on yourself, though, at such a rarefied altitude, not to let all that pure oxygen go to the brain. Well there’s always someone watchin’ kiddo, even if it’s just that bug they put in the back of yer brain. Like being spied on by your own shadow. What good’s a conscience with a poked-out eye, eh? Or if not a shadow, a rock even, a blade of astroturf, inanimate things programmed to intercept your innermost thoughts, the ones you don’t even know anything about. Just to help keep you centred in yourself.
Like Blecha sweeping his lawn, saying —
‘There’s this feeling you never get away from. Even now. Right at this instant. As if some eyeball-in-the-sky’s zoomed in on you. Can’t say why. I’m nothin’ to anyone. For forty years I was nothin’ to anyone & still they had their gizmos watchin’ ’n’ listenin’-in. Microscopes up yer arse, microphones in yer tooth fillings, hehe. Kind of comforting after a while that someone out there cares so much. Makes you wonder what they see, what they hear. Must be real exciting stuff, eh? Reckon they’d get sick of it after a while. Or maybe it’s the other way, man grows fond of the things he watches over, given enough time. Like that sentimental fucker in the sky, must shed a tear or two, eh, with all the carnage going on all over the place. Give His little Adam a tickle in the ribs every once in a while, just to let him know He’s still up there. A sneaky little Christmas present, if he’s been behaving himself, all wrapped in tinfoil & glitter. Watch the poor jerk tryin’ to guess who the secret benefactor is…’
MOVE 4: ENEMY KING, CASTLING & UNCASTLING.
Meet Viktor Faktor, chief editor of Heterocosmica magazine, the publication venue (one month after his death) of the last of the Prof’s scholarly exertions – a rather curious letter from a Georgius Baresch to the notorious Athanasius Kircher regarding said manuscript. Faktor is also Hon Sec of the Monarchist Society, a ringleader of a sinister suite (feat. a moustachioed dwarf & a laughing troll), and a spokesman for the Jesuits, who—should they suspect someone of meddling in their affairs—are “quite capable of making certain, um, arrangements…” Faktor claims he demands only what’s his (but is it? and is it – it?), the man living up to the ominousness of his name: Faktor the Redaktor (ZUGZWANG!).
‘I was thinking about you,’ he said. ‘Your problem interests me.’
His grip was quite strong. Němec stared at Faktor’s hand till the older man released his hold & leant back in his chair, just as Heydrich-the-waiter arrived with a third bottle of champagne in a fresh ice bucket & set about replacing the glasses, dusting out the ashtray, etc. Němec followed each of the waiter’s actions in turn, wondering if now was the time for him to get up & leave while he had the chance. The dwarf seemed to snicker knowingly.
‘Tell me,’ Faktor said in a voice full of sudden concern as soon as the waiter had departed, ‘have you made any progress with your inquiries? Perhaps I could help you?’
‘I believe,’ Faktor prompted, ‘our previous conversation touched upon a certain manuscript?’
Němec peered down at his hands, the palms were moist, they might’ve been glowing. Helluva night so far, kiddo. He took in the cut of Faktor’s cravat, the dyed goatee, the pipe. Like a character in a story he must’ve read, only he didn’t remember how this bit was supposed to go. He improvised, digging in his jacket pockets —
Němec flipped the calling card onto the table. It lay there in the candlelight with the palindrome facing up. ROTASOPERATENET… Faktor glanced at it with an absence of curiosity.
‘Ah,’ he jabbed his pipe at the handwriting, ‘we must spare a thought for poor Arepo.’
‘Mean anything to you?’
Faktor shrugged —
‘Ought it to?’
Němec turned the card over so the address was visible. The green shimmered in the candlelight.
‘Someone left this in the Prof’s apartment,’ Němec said. ‘Hájek, you remember him, don’t you? You printed that letter, just after he…’
A sick grin spread across Němec’s face —
‘So anyway, I go to his place & find this, with an address for a joint called the Green Fairy, in the middle of the goddamn river. I pay it a visit & along with a bunch of Nazi weirdoes I find you.’
The grin broadened, as if it had a life of its own —
‘Fantastic coincidence, wouldn’t you say?’
‘Indeed,’ Faktor said, stuffing his pipe bowl-first into his breast pocket, ‘quite fantastic, as coincidences frequently are.’
‘Sure,’ Němec’s grin slackened, ‘any other night & it might’ve been Joe Blow sitting here instead & I’d have to content myself with the lousy comedy act & the fancy dress. For such a popular joint it doesn’t do much to sell itself.’
‘As I said before,’ Faktor waived his hand, ‘discretion. Which very often is the better part of valour.’
‘Kind of invitation only, then?’ Němec fingered the calling card.
‘You might say that,’ Faktor gave him a bland look.
‘My thoughts exactly.’
‘Didn’t strike me as the sort you’d find in a place like this.’
Němec made a grab for the champagne. Faktor did nothing to discourage him. He poured three glasses & took two for himself. The dwarf chuckled.
‘And what kind of person was your Professor?’
‘He liked…’ Němec guzzled champagne, ‘chess. And Mahler.’
‘I see, you must’ve been very close,’ Faktor’s lips curled slightly. ‘I wonder how you’ll make sense of it all.’
‘All?’ Němec could feel his mouth going numb.
‘All,’ the editor of Hetercosmica said, bringing his glass to his lips, enough to wet them, then setting it to one side.
He drew his chair a little closer to Němec’s & leant towards him to speak, as if in confidence, rubbing his signet ring against the point of his goatee.
‘One must be extremely cautious in matters such as these,’ Faktor said, looking Němec in the eye. ‘Study your moves carefully. There was a young man I knew, very like you, during the War. We became quite intimate. He was a lieutenant in the Wehrmacht. Does that surprise you? Junge, his name was. Klaus Junge.’
Němec tried to read the design on the signet but couldn’t. It swam in the candlelight. He felt vaguely aware of a loosening in his face. The name, of course, meant nothing to him at all.
‘It’s true,’ Faktor said, as if he was disappointed Němec hadn’t doubted him. ‘Remember, there were those of us, too, who were fighting the Bolsheviks. Besides,’ he jabbed at the tablecloth, ‘it was before anyone knew about Chełmno, Belzec…’
He looked to the dwarf for agreement. The dwarf curled a finger in his moustache, tugged at it, leered at Němec.
‘That’s right, mister,’ said the dwarf, who couldn’t’ve been old enough to remember the first thing about the War. ‘You listen to the Boss, he knows.’
‘Not everything,’ Faktor continued, ‘was as straightforward in those days as our recent comrades would’ve liked everyone to believe.’
Němec pursed his lips noncommittally, turning the stem of his empty glass between his fingers. He reached for the other glass, but it too was empty, & yet without him lifting a finger a moment later it was full again. Němec began to wonder when the next act would appear on stage. All the while, Faktor continued speaking. Němec was close enough to smell the pipe tobacco on the man’s breath, even with the rest of that fog swirling about. His eyes drifted down to the ashtray on the table, a box of matches lay beside it — “THE KEY” it said, with a red upturned latchkey beneath. Němec had to concentrate to keep the writing in focus. He mumbled something no-one else could hear. About a blonde. Where was she? Who was she?
‘It was December, 1942,’ Faktor said. ‘The War had already begun to turn, only no-one could see it yet. The army had no winter uniforms. People were bringing unneeded clothes to the Altstadtplatz, piles of them, for the Eastern Front. No-one knew if it was madness or a stroke of genius to attack Stalin like that. And Hitler refused to retreat. It almost seemed possible. Who could’ve guess what the outcome would be, that it would all end here. Life,’ he shrugged, ‘went on, as it does, even at times of greatest adversity. The authorities even organised a lavish chess tournament, in the Representatives’ House.* It was to honour old Duras, one of the grandmasters, who’d turned sixty, a so-you-might-say Festschrift, a Jubilee, to which the Who’s Who were invited. Even esteemed Dr Alekhine came — he could hardly have refused. A Russian who hated Stalin as much as we did? But a Russian nevertheless.’
The dwarf poured champagne. By now they’d drowned more glasses than Němec could count. He kept a vague hold on the thread of Faktor’s story: December, 1942. Barely six months, as every schoolkid in Golem City knew, after the SS razed the village of Lidice in reprisal for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.* During which time they shot all the village’s male inhabitants & deported the women & children to death camps. 10th of June. It was a story Němec had been made to learn by heart, every little detail. For the honour of the Republic. The Commies never tired of making propaganda out of it.* Reflexively, Němec glanced around for the waiter. Misinterpreting, Faktor told the dwarf to pour him another.
‘Cheers,’ Němec said, raising his glass.
He put it down empty on the table, carefully, so as not to knock anything over, & reached for the second glass. He could feel the dwarf’s little rodent-eyes studying him, but didn’t care. Faktor leant even closer.
‘The last game brought mein lieber jungerfreund head-to-head with the russischer Goliath, the indomitable Alekhine!’
Faktor almost looked like he was getting excited by his own story.
‘There were whispers all round,’ he said. ‘A large group of us huddled around the table — had only there been a Rembrandt to paint it! Such a scene! Such a moment! La querelle des Anciens et les Modernes. He was only eighteen, Klaus. Imagine! Alekhine played white, the Queen’s gambit. The gambit was declined. The game lasted twentynine moves. Perhaps it was fated that Klaus should not have won. Nevertheless, they finished the tournament on equal points. Neck & neck.’
And what about dear old ducky Duras, Němec wondered. For whose sake the gallant heirs of Steinitz had staged their tournament. Not to let such an insignificant detail as one small village in the middle of nowhere get in the way of collaboration between our two nations.* Somehow Němec managed to stifle his hilarity. And Alekhine, he thought, a Russian the Nazis were prepared to tolerate, like Vlassov, if only for hating Stalin. The rest, the masses of the East, deemed sub specie. Dogs, vermin, scum. Untermenschen. A bitter laugh escaped his lips. The dwarf made a strange face at him.
‘You know,’ Faktor said, laying his hand on Němec’s arm again, ‘you look very much like him.’
Němec frowned at the other man’s hand where it lay across his sleeve.
‘Three weeks before the end of the war, poor Klaus was wounded at Welle, on the Lüneburger Heide, near Hamburg, resisting the allied advance. Mortally, as it happened. His death was pointless. It achieved nothing. The Americans marched all the way south to Plzeň where they stopped while Patton* twiddled his thumbs for a couple of months, leaving us to the mercy of the Cossacks.’
Well, armer Klaus, glad not to’ve been in your shoes, chum.
Faktor cleared his throat & sat back in his chair. Němec tried to make out the purpose of the story, but couldn’t figure it. Perhaps it was meant as some sort of allegory? Hidden meanings & all that. Or the man really was nuts? That Klaus, he thought, must really’ve been one ugly sonofabitch to look anything like me. And then he thought of something the Prof said once, about how you should always be sure when to play the pawn in a game, and when to be the pawn that controls the game.
* This just gets better & better.
* Obecní Dům.
* BdS H. Böhme’s little bit of inspiration, passed up the line to Himmler.
* It went like this: Before daybreak the SS encircled the village, preventing anyone from leaving: the inhabitants were herded into a byre from which the village men (including one Josef Kafka, smelter, twentytwo years old) were led out in groups to be executed in a farmyard. They were made to stand in a row, unblindfolded, unbound, with mattresses ripped from the village’s beds propped behind them against the farmyard wall, to muffle the ricochet. Five at a time — then ten at a time — beginning : a.m. As the pile of corpses advanced the firing squad was forced to retreat against the farmhouse steps, cartridge cases clattering on concrete. The shooting went on all afternoon, till the rifle barrels burned the hands of the firing squad & there was barely room for the last victims to stand, pointblank, staring down triangular Mauser sites at the Schupi conscripts’ deadeyes. The next day, 11 June — nineteen more men, who’d been absent from the village working down the mines, & seven women, were rounded up & sent to the Kobylisy execution grounds to be shot: Josef Horák (1885), Anna Horáková (1886), Marie Horáková (1923), Marie Horáková (1885), Václav Horák (1920), Štěpán Horák (1887), Štěpán Horák (1920), Marie Frühaufová (1919), Stanislav Horák (1897), Anastázie Horáková (1902), Bohumil Horák (1889), Anna Horáková (1891), Václav Kohlíček (1918), Marie Stříbrná (1894), František Stříbrný (1917), František Černý (1907), Karel Hroník (1900), Josef Kácl (1912), Václav Kadlec (1922), Václav Kopáček (1921), Jaroslav Müller (1913), Josef Petrák (1903). Afterwards, the Reichsarbeitsdienst burned & bulldozed the houses — farmwalls, hedges, church, cemetery — tore up the curbing, cobblestones, concrete — ripped out the poplars, the lindens, the lichens — pilfered the livestock — scorched the fields — pulverised the milestones, the millstones — levelled the hillocks — filled the fishponds — changed the courses of streams, brooks, creaks & rivers — obliterated by any & all means manual or technological the merest Wahrzeichen, Meilenstein, the merest trace of habitat or habitant, till, as is customarily said, nothing, not even an eyesore, remained. In the meantime, driven by a Selbstdokumentarberichtsmanie that would almost have put David O. Selznik to shame, the Nazis meticulously & painstakingly chronicled every tiny little detail of the Entwurzelungsprozess on a mm Zeiss-Ikon — twentyfour miles of celluloid to hang themselves with at Nuremburg.
* A mere drop in the ocean, hehe, & so on & so forth.
* Ol’ Blood’n’Guts.