The following is the prologue from Paolo Maurensig’s novel, Theory of the Shadows. The author details the mystery around chess champion (and alleged Nazi collaborator) Alexander Alekhine's death; and why the story was best told in fiction. Paolo Maurensig is an Italian novelist whose previous works include The Lüneburg Variation and Canone Inverso.
Estoril, August 2012
Once again I wake up in the dead of night, smothered by the late August heat, and, finding myself lying in a bed at this modest hotel in Estoril, I am overcome by anxiety. The question that for years has been haunting me is only amplified in the nocturnal solitude and silence, until it becomes deafening. Will I finally be able to find an answer?
It all started with my inveterate passion for chess. I have never played in a qualifying tournament, or achieved standing in the official ranking; indeed, I consider myself an enthusiastic amateur. Still, say what you like, but even a café player can draw great satisfaction from the game. After all, when you are competing with opponents of your own caliber, the excitement you feel is not very different from that experienced by the champions. There is also the pleasure of research, of studying the games played by the great masters of the past, and even of discovering how tormented their lives must have been, precisely because of their absolute devotion to the formidable idol that is chess. Lives that often ended tragically.
I was born in Venezuela and spent my childhood in Caracas. My father died when I was only five. My mother then went to work as a governess in a family of Italians who had made a fortune in the catering business. She was well liked, and was herself very attached to them, so when they decided to return to Italy, we moved, too, settling in the capital.
Since my intention is to talk about someone else’s life, however, I shouldn’t dwell on my own, which up until the age of fifty was spent in precious mediocrity. When I suddenly decided to write a novel, I did so not out of a desire to deliver myself from a gray existence, but solely because I was driven by an obsession: to discover the cause of a man’s death, which took place sixty-six years ago. That man is Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Alekhin, better known as Alexandre Alekhine, and if I somehow learned to play chess at a level that is, to me, satisfactory, I owe it all to him. I owe it to the study of his unparalleled games and the comments he made, in a clear, comprehensible way, concerning the various phases of his game and the strategies applied during the course of every single match. He has been my role model for many years now, my tutelary deity.
Only recently, though, did I begin looking into his past, and it was from there that the idea of writing a novel sprang. Not so much about his life, actually, as about the final days leading up to his as yet unexplained death. To do that, I had to adopt the garb of an investigator determined to reopen the case of a crime long since filed away unsolved. I went to Lisbon, and I visited all the chess clubs, starting with the Turf Club, along the very fashionable Rua Garrett, down to the last smoke-filled dive in Estoril; there I made several contacts, passing myself off as a journalist interested in writing an article on Alekhine’s life.
My knowledge of Portuguese—which was my mother’s language— was of great help to me in communicating with the locals. Still, according to what I’ve been able to learn so far, word is that there’s only one man who can give me any fresh information on the events in question. His name is Rui Nascimento. Chess player, problemist, musician, and poet, he is a very popular figure in Lisbon. Unfortunately, he has been admitted to the hospital, dying. And it’s not surprising, seeing that he’s reached the enviable age of ninety–eight. Still, I decided to visit him anyway. I thought that perhaps I might get a chance to speak with one of his family members. Instead, I didn’t even have the nerve to cross the threshold of his room. His bed was next to a curtained window through which a milky light seeped in. Around him, several women dressed in black were absorbed in prayer. I only managed to get a glimpse of his aquiline profile, rendered more hooked by his hollow cheeks: a face already reduced to a funerary mask.
Thus, no new information has been added to what I’ve already turned up through my research. In the more than sixty years that have passed since the time of Alekhine’s death, with the advent of the Internet, the number of hypotheses—many of which I would not care to share—has multiplied beyond belief. There remain, however, a number of facts that have been certified and documented.
On the Morning of Sunday, March 24, 1946, Alexandre Alekhine, world chess champion, was found lifeless in his room at the Hotel do Parque, in Estoril. It was the waiter assigned to bring him breakfast who sounded the alarm. Having entered with the food trolley, he saw the master sitting in his usual armchair; with his eyes closed and his head tilted back, he appeared to be asleep. Instead of his smoking jacket, he was wearing an overcoat; his left arm hung limply at his side, and his fingers were clutching a piece of meat.
News of his death, attributed to a heart attack, was soon announced by a Portuguese radio station. The following day, the Daily Mail wrote that Alekhine had taken his own life after suffering a huge loss at the casino. The death certificate was written up the same day by Dr. Antonio Jacinto Ferreira, who, three days later, was also present at the autopsy performed by Dr. Asdrúbal d’Aguiar. It was reported that a piece of meat had occluded his airway, asphyxiating him. Moreover, it was revealed that the deceased suffered from chronic gastritis, duodenitis, and atherosclerosis. Strangely, no mention was made of the condition of either his heart or his liver, though Alekhine’s problems with alcohol were known to all.
Luís Lupi—stepfather of Francisco Lupi, chess champion of Portugal and a friend of Alekhine—was among the first to rush over and take a few photographs. Two of the four snapshots quickly traveled around the world, published in hundreds of magazines and newspapers.
These same photographs, disclosed with the intent of confirming that the master had expired peacefully, produced the opposite result, raising numerous doubts concerning the official version. If you compare the two snapshots, which were taken from different angles, certain objects in fact appear to have been shifted slightly; this fueled misgivings that the scene had been carefully prepared in order to convince readers and chess fans that the world champion had died of natural causes (and consequently to put to rest even the slightest suspicion of a violent death). Although Alekhine had been accused of collaborating with the Nazis, it was a source of pride for Portugal to host the world chess champion; his sudden death was therefore a matter of grave embarrassment for the government. The general impression was that the authorities were doing everything possible to play down the incident. This task was assigned to the PIDE (Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado), which at that time controlled all aspects of Portuguese life with an iron fist: it imposed a rigorous censorship on newspapers and radio stations, and quickly filed away the case, without launching any further investigations.
“As a result, he certainly wasn’t lacking in enemies, but if—as I believe—Alekhine was murdered, what I’m still missing is a plausible motive. And I know that you cannot write a story centered on a crime without unmasking the killer at the end.”
Nevertheless, some spoke up. The first was Artur Portela, a journalist in open conflict with the Salazar regime. Even though he was considered a subversive and was constantly under the scrutiny of the secret police, Portela was untouchable. He was renowned throughout Europe for his interviews with great statesmen—among them Generalissimo Franco and Winston Churchill—and King George VI of England had recently conferred on him the Order of Liberty.
In an article published on April 15 in Diário de Lisboa, entitled “O segredo do Quarto 43: A morte misteriosa de Alexandre Alekhine” (“The Secret of Room 43: The Mysterious Death of Alexandre Alekhine”), he examined the various inconsistencies that appeared when he attempted to reconstruct the events of that fateful morning. To begin with, he pointed out that news of Alekhine’s death had spread well before the waiter had discovered the lifeless body. Referring to the published photos, he then wondered why the master, merely to sit at his own table, had put on a heavy coat instead of a smoking jacket—the Portuguese spring was already quite warm.
Artur Portela was also the first to air the theory of homicide, suggesting the involvement of agents of the Kremlin. With due prudence, however, he ruled out any complicity on the part of Salazar’s secret police. All the same, his conjectures were ridiculed, attributed to a writer’s fertile imagination. Very soon, moreover, the international press, at first respectful, became ruthless, choosing to focus on the ambiguous figure of the champion, his excesses, bringing to light details of his life that were not very edifying, such as his habit of eating meat with his hands and drinking nothing short of three pints of cognac every day. According to a statement by Grandmaster Hans Kmoch, Alekhine and his last wife, Grace Wishaar, traveled around the world with, in addition to a number of cats, a whole trunk filled with liquor bottles: a portable stash.
Numerous testimonies were gathered—some not very reliable—from those who claimed to have known him closely, and they, too, helped to create a very ambivalent portrait of the man.
Nor was the possibility of suicide ruled out.
That he had self-destructive tendencies was confirmed by the chess player Edmond Lancel, who reported encountering Alekhine—in 1922, on his birthday, in Aix-la-Chapelle—at three in the morning, as he was wandering through the deserted lobby of the Grand Hotel Corneliusbad. He thought Alekhine was ill, and when he approached to help him, the master fell unconscious at his feet, bleeding profusely from a wound in the abdomen that (it was later discovered) he had inflicted on himself with a kitchen knife. Alekhine was promptly rushed to the hospital. When he was discharged, after a week, the doctors recommended complete rest, but a few days later he was already participating in a tournament. The story behind that injury remained obscure; people preferred to attribute it to a general state of extreme fatigue.
Reuben Fine, a psychoanalyst and a candidate for the world chess title (he was the first to object strenuously to Alekhine’s participation in the London tournament of 1946), would subsequently sketch a disturbing psychological portrait of the master, describing him as “the sadist of the chess world” and going so far as to speculate that even at an early age he had suffered from impotence, likely caused by alcoholism. But it was chiefly based on Alekhine’s political positions that the attacks on him multiplied. There were those who saw him as an opportunist, a man without ideals, ready to change his stripes at any moment; he was said to be a spy, a double agent, a traitor. Some claimed that he had been involved with the famous cryptographic machine called Enigma, and that he had first worked as a British intelligence agent before then going over to the enemy; others contended that, having been enlisted in a British secret–service “ghost cell” headed by Ian Fleming, and not officially recognized by the High Command, he had lost all contact with his recruiters, finding it impossible to clarify his position.
But the worst infamy that was attributed to him, the indelible stain that Alekhine carried with him during the final years of his life, was his friendship with Reichsminister Hans Frank, governor of Poland. At the end of the war, he was left with few friends: to the French he was a collaborator, to the Soviets a traitor; even the White Russians who had settled in Europe would not forgive him for having worked, during the Revolution, for the ministry tasked with expropriating the assets of emigrants.
As a result, he certainly wasn’t lacking in enemies, but if—as I believe—Alekhine was murdered, what I’m still missing is a plausible motive. And I know that you cannot write a story centered on a crime without unmasking the killer at the end.
Though I came here to find a conceivable ending to my novel, it seems increasingly likely that I will leave without having accomplished anything. I spoke to the old people in the area. I deluded myself that everyone would remember something about Alekhine, but to the majority of them that name means absolutely nothing. Only one man, hearing me say it, gave an imperceptible start, as though the gear tooth of a cogwheel had clicked into place in his memory’s mechanism.
“Ah, sim, o campeão mundial de xadrez”—“Oh yes, the world chess champion.”
Then, too, I can’t help finding myself weighed down by the sense of distance one feels when noting the changes that have taken place over the years. Now, faced with cold reality, the impeccable mental structure that I’d built in narrating Alekhine’s story is crumbling like a sand castle. If you compare Estoril as it is now with postcards from the first postwar period—printed in black and white, or at most touched up with a few strokes of color—you realize how different it must have appeared at that time: the wild coast, mostly covered by low, shrubby thicket, is merely a remote memory, and the charming hotel where Alekhine met his death no longer exists, having been demolished in the 1970s in favor of a modern structure only vaguely reminiscent of the earlier one. This new Hotel do Parque is one of the most celebrated hotels in the vicinity, and the beach, which at that time was rarely frequented by bathers, becomes in summer a carnival of multicolored umbrellas, with bathing establishments stretching as far as the eye can see.
Had I shortened my stay by a few days, I would have been able to afford the luxury of staying at the Hotel do Parque myself—indeed, I might even have been able to satisfy my desire to occupy Room 43, which, in the master’s memory, still bears a doorplate engraved with his name—but I was afraid that, confronted with reality, the setting that I had already depicted in my pages might fade altogether. Only once did I venture to set foot in the lobby, but I left almost immediately. Seeing the bar, its modern design, as icy as a gelato parlor, was enough to make my stomach tighten. Everything was so fake, so contrived. Even that doorplate makes me smile. I couldn’t begin to guess whose idea it was to put it there, and though I appreciate the thought, it reminds me too much of a bunch of withered flowers laid at the foot of a tree where some unfortunate drove off the road and lost his life.
So I chose a different hotel, small, not too far away. I walk to the shore in the early mornings, when there are still only a few people out. It’s not long before the beach gets crowded, but there’s one stretch of rocky coast that remains untouched by this mass incursion of bathers—the one that leads to the lighthouse, along the same narrow path I assume Alekhine chose for his own solitary walks. Following the trail, I like to think that I’m retracing his footsteps. Every so often I stop in some sheltered cleft among the rocks to reread the pages of the manuscript that I always carry with me, and let my mind transport me back to that far-off spring of 1946.
From Theory of Shadows. Used with permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2018 by Paolo Maurensing.