Ricard Ruiz Garzon
Random House Mondadori, Spain
First Published in El Ocho Edicion Especial
Debolsillo 2009 Barcelona
I. THE RULES OF THE GAME
God moves the player, he, in turn, the piece. But what god
beyond God begins the round of dust & time & dreams & agonies?
JORGE LUIS BORGES, Chess
2008 was, in many ways, the year of “eight”. It was the year of eight because of the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing, held on 8-8-8 at 8:08–since eight is a magic number for the Chinese, who associate it with luck and even with infinity. But there was another reason why 2008 was the year of eight: because a novel–born in 1988, entitled The Eight, and so structured around that number that even the symbols separating the sections of its narrative looked like little horizontal eights, the sign of infinity–has celebrated two decades of good fortune with the long-awaited arrival of a sequel. In the case of this popular novel–of which the American writer Katherine Neville has sold more than ten million copies and has seen translated into nearly forty languages–it is worth noting that the story, as its readers know, does not orbit around that number by chance; that its plot and the movement of its protagonists are governed by the following prophecy: “On the fourth day of the fourth month, then will come the Eight.” That digit forms the backbone of this novel, thanks to a game with a board made up of eight by eight squares and four rows, each occupied by eight pieces–64 squares and 32 pieces in total: Chess.
The title of the novel, as well as the game that inspires it and the number that dominates the story, all draw us into a new game, one that begins as soon as the novel is finished: a game that involves tracking down and unravelling the meaning all those intriguing historical, numerical, and chess-related clues that are essential to reveal the secrets hidden beneath this quintessential literary bestseller. It is surely these clues, some of them remarkably adroit–and the adventures of the protagonists, Mireille de Remy and Catherine Velis, whose lives are separated by two centuries, but who are united in their tireless search for the Montglane Service–which have permitted this novel to transcend its role of entertainment and to become a literary experience capable of obsessing millions of readers worldwide. Like the enigmatic game itself, bequeathed to us by Charlemagne, The Eight contains hidden formulas that hide the secrets to its power. The following pages will reveal some of these–the major ones, but not all. Ultimately–as the alleged fortune-teller and expert in encrypting messages says to Cat Velis at the beginning of the story: “One game is real and one is a metaphor”.
Welcome to the game.
The author facing the mirror
The attentive reader is unlikely to miss the classic literary reference most often alluded to in The Eight, since it is mentioned directly at least half a dozen times in the novel: Through the Looking Glass, the continuation of Alice in Wonderland, published by Lewis Carroll in 1871. Replete with parallels, as we shall see in the following pages, both novels share, above all, a playful inspiration, a chess-like structure–the story develops like a chess game, involving living pieces–and a passion for symmetries, focused on the symbolic mirror of Carroll’s title which Katherine Neville uses as a blurred prism to enrich her own narrative. Just as at the beginning of a chess game, where two symmetrical armies prepare for battle, The Eight portrays a fight between two sides, duplicated in two different ages, those of Cat and Mireille. Alongside this game of mirrors, which we will look at more closely later on, there is another one that is less evident: one that takes place between the author, Katherine Neville, and her character Catherine Velis.
The similarity between the names of the author and her protagonist, who is also the first-person narrator of the story, go further than the obvious coincidence of “Katherine/Catherine”. For some, even the partial homonym between the surnames Neville and Velis could hide another secret. In the Seventeenth Century there was a dean at Canterbury Cathedral called Thomas Neville (1544-1614), whose celebrated motto Ne Vile Velis [“Form no vile wish” in Latin] not only contains her own name, but also establishes the correspondence: Ne-Vile/Velis. An interesting fact for any reader of The Eight.
Leaving aside other speculations, it is true that a brief look at the life of the author Katherine Neville can help us to follow in the footsteps of her character Cat Velis in the story. Born in Missouri on April 4th (the same April 4th or “the fourth day, of the fourth month” in which her character, Velis, is born, and which is destined, in the book, to determine the course of her existence and her relationship with the Montglane Service), Neville studied in New York and began working in the new field of computing, developing programs for transport systems and traveling the world for twenty years. As well as working as a model and dedicating herself to photography and painting (just like Velis, who works in computing, but produces paintings like the one she paints of the cyclist Alexander Solarin in The Eight), her specialty gave her the opportunity to work in the 1970s as an international consultant for the Algerian government, a time that coincided with the oil crisis provoked by OPEC in 1973 (an experience, its obvious to say, that she takes advantage of for her character’s story). Before becoming a nuclear research consultant, which forms the basis of her novel The Magic Circle–but which also provides the basis of some reflections at the end of The Eight–Neville lived in Paris, London and other countries in the north of Africa, which are all locations visited by Cat Velis and Mireille de Remy in the novel. From that point onwards, however, the paths of both women diverge–or perhaps not: owners of two formulas for posterity (Neville, her novel, and Velis, the chess formula), the creator and her creation crossed paths again in 2008 with the publication of Part Two of The Eight: The Fire.
Who knows if this will be their last meeting?
Interesting–and, above all, pertinent as they are to gaining an understanding of the wide-ranging knowledge that Katherine Neville displays in The Eight–these biographical elements are not, as they are with most authors, the most important clue to help us understand the novel. Despite the profundity of the historical and chess-related references, it is worth pointing out that the central conceit of the novel, The Montglane Service, is the author’s invention, based only on some brief allusions to less fantastical games in the Chanson de Roland, the Legend of Charlemagne, and in other medieval romances. Just like the game with its esoteric implications, Montglane Abbey is also Neville’s invention–though it is partly inspired by the Benedictine Abbey in Caen, which is briefly mentioned in the novel when we learn that is where the sisters Alexandrine de Forbin and Charlotte Corday have arrive from, during their visit to Montglane. The actual Caen Abbey was originally founded in 1063 by William the Conqueror and Matilde of Flanders, as a dual construction with separate buildings for Ladies and Gentlemen, and despite being occupied by nuns until 1980, it is true that in 1791, as explained in The Eight–and until 1820 in reality–they were expelled after a decision by the French National Assembly to confiscate the Church’s property and to suppress its privileges.
Like the powerful chess set, and the Pyrenees Abbey of Montglane, the protagonists Mireille and Catherine come from the author’s imagination, although she supplies us with such an abundance of details about them that often they feel as real to us as the many authentic historical figures who also populate the novel. Mireille and some of the secondary characters that accompany her–her unfortunate cousin Valentine, the Abbess Helene de Roque, the Tuareg Shahin and, of course, the young Charlot–are fictional characters. However, more than thirty of the characters that appear in the book during the last decade of the Eighteenth Century are real, and in many cases, celebrated, historical figures. Cat and her friend Lily Rad in the modern sections, on the other hand, are fictitious, just like the majority of the characters who appear in 1973, including the chess players Solarin, Mordecai and Antony Fiske, the furrier Harry Rad and his wife Blanche, the antiques dealer Llewellyn, the chauffeur Saul, the patron John Hermanold, the computer technician Ladislaus Nim, the policeman Sharrif, the minister Kamel Kader, the receptionist Therese, the carpet trader El-Marad and, of course, Lily’s dog, Carioca.
What makes The Eight an extraordinary novel, then, is its capacity to combine fiction with documented historical elements, and fit them into a narrative full of connections between such diverse subjects as music, art, history, mythology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, philosophy and, in more speculative fields, mysticism, metaphysics and alchemy, among other esoteric traditions. Despite telling the story of the imaginary search for an imaginary object by a group of imaginary characters and, despite the fact that its narrative is centered on an element of fantastic properties, the reading of The Eight oozes narrative realism, especially in its first two thirds. The reason for that, aside from these historical characters and this chess-related framework, which we’ll soon analyze, is the the careful spatial and temporal composition of the novel.
Where, how, when
The complex structure of The Eight–a long book with frequent temporal leaps and with at least a dozen featured locations–does not prevent it from being a novel that is virtually impossible to put down. The secret behind this is the astute pacing of the plot and an elaborate structuring of the narrative material at the author’s disposal. The Eight is divided into twenty-eight chapters, from “The Defense” to “End Game”, centered on two specific historical moments: the nine years between 1790 and 1799 in Mireille’s case (leaving aside her secret of longevity) and the nine months between December 1972 and September 1973, in Cat Velis’s case. Although it is true that the story delves deeper into history, starting with the Egyptians, the Persians, the Phoenicians and Babylonians, and progressing to different moments of the Middle Ages, mainly related to the existence of the fictional Montglane Service. Curiously, of these twenty-eight chapters, Mireille is only directly featured in ten [historic chapters], while Cat Velis serves as the narrator of all sixteen modern chapters. Then there is the last chapter, in which both protagonists finally meet. (The missing chapter of the twenty eight mentioned here is the one from the point of view the Abbess of Montglane, entitled “An Exchange of Queens”, and not by accident–as its title indicates, and as the quote from Carroll that precedes it underlines–this chapter marks a point of inflection, after which the old game between the Abbess and Catherine the Great is substituted by the one set in the present in the novel.
This warping of time and shifting of narrative points of view, essential to the structure of The Eight, is reinforced by two other points. The first is the inclusion of eight “inevitably” separate stories [Tales-Within-A-Tale] that are told in the first person by different people. Inserted into the middle of the plot that is underway, each of these tales provides us a flashback featuring, in order of appearance, the Abbess of Montglane, Maurice de Talleyrand, Catherine the Great, Andre Philidor, Letizia Buonaparte, Robespierre, Wordsworth and Blake (together), and the “brothers”, Nim and Solarin. (Although there is seemingly another story at the end of the novel, but this is in fact a fragment of Mireille’s diary, which is very different in format, length and narrative function).
The other structural element that should be mentioned is related to the locations where the story occurs, all of them authentic: New York, Algeria, Paris, London, Corsica, the Sahara, Vermont, Cairo, Saint Petersburg and even Tassili and the Channel Islands. These are all places that are recreated in the novel during different historical ages, and the societies that inhabit these places are all described by Neville with admirable expertise. This is especially true of the France convulsed by the French Revolution and the Terror, or a petrol-rich Algeria divided between tradition and modernity, the principle scenarios of the novel in which the author moves her pieces.
Where, how, when..? In the book, Neville has Velis discover that the chessboard, the pieces and the cloth that cover them actually contain the three parts of the formula that will lead to the solution, three parts that correspond to the “how”, the “when” and the “what”. We’ll leave this until later as these questions constitute the heart of the story. But now that the pieces of the story are in place, the game is about to begin. With the board in place, the pieces in their squares and the clock starting to tick, it is time for the author of The Eight to display her brilliance in those two methods of combat that decide the outcome of any game, including literary ones: tactics (or, a collection of specific moves) and strategy (or, long-term planning). It is time to discover her game, the game described in the last chapters of the book as: “The game of kings, that most dangerous game: the eternal game”.
II. THE GAME OF HISTORY
The precise localization, the impressive incorporation of celebrated characters, and the presentation of ingenious fictional alternatives to explain some of the most surprising historical occurrences of each age are, without doubt, the three tactical procedures that Katherine Neville employs with most skill in her sport with the reader. More prevalent in the chapters featuring Mireille–probably because temporal proximity impedes such temerity in Velis’s more recent age–these tactical moves are among the best aspect of The Eight, and are worth analyzing in more detail.
The French Revolution (age, place, characters)
If there is a decisive historical context within The Eight, it is without doubt the French Revolution. A source of some of the best moments in the story, the conflict that transformed the world only appears as an important setting for the action of the novel in chapters 1, 4, 9, 11, 14 and 19, but the impact it has on the reader is undoubtedly one of the biggest in the book. Although the section dedicated to Mireille de Remy covers practically the whole of this fascinating period, which took place between 1789 and 1799, the novel only directly reflects events in the years between April 4th 1790, when the Abbess of Montglane explains to her pupils how, and why, they need to leave the convent, to June 17th 1793, the day in which Charlotte Corday swaps her destiny with Mireille. Three years (to which we could only add some pages from chapter 25, which take place in 1797 and tell the story of a party that Talleyrand throws for Napoleon at the Hotel Galliffet in Paris) that coincide with this historically important and complex moment of the Revolution, marked by such decisive events as the writing of the Constitution that put an end to the Ancient Regime, the massacre of the Sans-culottes in the Champs de Mars, the outbreak of hostilities between the French state and the powers of Austria and Prussia, the assault on the Tuilleries palace, the abolition of the monarchy, the execution of Louis XVI, the proclamation of the Republic, the creation of the National Convention and the initiation of the Jacobin reign of Terror, during which more than ten thousand people would soon go before the guillotine.
In regard to the development of the story of The Eight, this convulsed three-year period is reflected and fictionalized in the novel, through three principle arenas: the locations, the personalities and the historical events that Neville recreates. Aside from the imaginary Montglane Abbey, the locations of the revolution chosen by the author are usually domestic interiors, like the homes of the painter Jacques Louis David (1745-1825), the politician Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand (1754-1838) and the doctor and activist Jean Paul Marat (1743-1793), all of them essential, although divergent, figures in the history of the revolution. In certain decisive moments in the book, however, Neville chooses more colorful settings like the Theatre de l’Opera-Comique in Paris, where Mireille and Valentine attend their first opera accompanied by the influential writer Madame de Stael (1766-1817), daughter of the minister Jacques Necker and wife of the ambassador of Sweden; or the Cafe de la Regeance, whose chess games were immortalized by Denis Diderot in his work Le Neveu de Rameau–a location which, in The Eight, features David conversing with the all-powerful Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794); or more significantly, and described by the author in a feat of technical skill, the seat of the Paris Commune, the palace of the Assembly, the Jacobin Club and, above all, the legendary prisons of l’Abbaye and the Bastille, where Valentine and Mireille find themselves imprisoned. As well as these, and corresponding to the mass hysteria that accompanied the Revolution, The Eight also describes some impressive crowd scenes in the agitated streets of Paris, especially those which lead to the execution of Valentine, an event that will cast its shadow over the entire rest of the story.
The authentic historical figures already mentioned, alongside a group of other figures who are equally distinguished in their revolutionary involvement, yet less central to the narrative–like the republican Georges-Jacques Danton, Count Mirabeau, Camille Desmoulins and even King Louis XVI–as well as other fascinating characters who appear in the tales-within-a-tale, such as Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642) and the philosophers Voltaire (1694-1778) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)–all these provide consistency to the settings of The Eight, which are pivotal in advancing the action of the story. In fact, most of these figures even find their biographies spiced up a bit by Neville, who doesn’t hesitate to relate them directly to the Montglane Service, which all of them are aware of, and even, in many cases, trying to locate.
Of these historical figures, the painter David and the statesman Talleyrand are, through their direct, intimate and continuous contact with Mireille and Valentine, the ones who best exemplify the way in which Neville moulds real biographies to fit into the framework of her novel. The role of David, the guardian of the young women, is not limited in the story to his function as the girls’ protector. His active participation as the artistic leader of the Revolution, his friendship with Robespierre and his contacts with the Parisian elite turn him into the ideal narrative ace in the pack, chosen by Neville with great sagacity. Aside from his involvement with the Montglane Service, the sharp-witted Neville allows herself a playful nod to the enlightened reader: the first time he appears in the story, the painter is described in the middle of the creation of a painting for which Mireille and Valentine are serving as his models. The painting is the Rape of the Sabine Women, one of the artist’s most celebrated works. This trick allows Neville to give her fictitious characters a real incarnation, since anyone who takes the time to go and visit the painting in the Louvre will now have the opportunity to look at the faces of the Montglane novices.
Before we take a look at an even clearer use of a conceit like this, it is worth considering the role of Talleyrand in The Eight, whose presence is a perfect example of how the meeting point between history and fiction can produce results of great novelistic effectiveness. Throughout the story, this important diplomat–the author of Article VI of The Declarations of the Rights of Man–is destined to become the father of Mireille’s children, which is not surprising, given his fame as a womanizer. A key figure in the search for the Montglane Service, Talleyrand is humanized by his physical problems–but also elevated by his social connections, which give Mireille access to historical figures of the stature of de Stael, Voltaire, Richelieu, Catherine Grand, Benedict Arnold, Benjamin Franklin and even Napoleon himself. It isn’t surprising that the powerful bishop of Autun–who is the first to point out that the chess set “hides a formula capable of revealing the secret of universal power”, is announced to us dramatically, in his first appearance at David’s house, by Valentine as: “The devil incarnate”! Like all of literature’s devils, this exclamation warns the reader that one of the most extraordinary figures of the novel has just arrived.
It would be unfair to conclude this overview of the history of the French Revolution as depicted within The Eight, without a special mention of chapters 9 and 19, which many readers regard as the best in the entire book. Entitled “Sacrifices” and “The Death of Kings”, these chapters are united by a particular structure that differentiates them from the rest. The first takes place on September 2nd, 1792, the day that the Terror descended upon Paris, and the second recounts a few days between July 10th and 30th of the following year, during which Marat’s murder occurs. Both chapters give us Neville’s finest work as an historical novelist, displaying the skill of a writer capable of introducing great leaps of imagination within the context of real incidents, and, through this, obtaining the complicity, respect and devotion of her grateful readers.
In the thrilling chapter entitled “Sacrifices”–overshadowed by the savagery of the mob and containing some of the most violent images of the novel–Neville relates how Valentine is caught up in the tumult in front of l’Abbaye prison, where she is captured and held prisoner until Mireille and David manage to get inside to try and save her. Instead, however, the painter and the young woman come face to face with an ailing and decadent Marat, full of pustulous sores (another unforgettable image from The Eight) a figure who is determined, because of the Montglane Service, not to spare her life.
Later, the chapter entitled “The Death of Kings” undertakes one of the most fabulous and daring narrative games in the book: the ruse that transforms the Girondin Charlotte Corday (1768-1793), the real assassin of the controversial Voice of the People, into Mireille who stabs and kills Marat in retribution for Valentine’s death. Therefore, The Death of Marat, Jacques Louis David’s most famous painting, does not depict the death caused by the act of the audacious Corday, soon to be guillotined for her crime, but of the fictitious Mireille, whom, only a couple of years earlier, he had immortalized as one of the Sabine women.
“The Death of Kings” is an exceptional chapter, even more so because its very title, as well as its contents, perfectly sum up the fact that Neville has chosen the French Revolution as the setting for a story about a cursed chess set.
Russia, OPEC, and other contexts
“Al-safar zafar!”, “Voyaging is victory”, says the oil minister Kamel Kader to Cat Velis in the novel, and this also seems to be a motto close to Katherine Neville’s heart. A professional traveler, but also a vocational one (she says she has lived in more than half of the fifty states in her immense native country), the writer, not surprisingly, doesn’t reduce her narrative scope in The Eight merely to the settings of the French Revolution. Without embarking into excessive detail about the extensive catalogue of locales that appear in the novel, it is nonetheless worth pointing out some of the more interesting ones. Among these is the imperial Europe of the Emperor Charlemagne (742-814), where we see the Montglane Service first arrive as a gift from the Moorish governor of Barcelona Ibn-al-Arabi (the real Sulayman ibn yaqzan ibn al-arabi); as well as the modern Algeria of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, OPEC, where the Saudi monarch Faisal and the Libyan leader Muhammar el Gaddafi appear as exceptional dinner guests in chapter 24; and the Russia in transformation of Catherine the Great (1729-1796)–without doubt another of the books most intriguing characters, thanks to the singular explanation of her enormous power, bestowed by the enigmatic chess set. Thanks to this and the difficult journey that the Abbess makes to St. Petersburg, especially relevant in chapter 6, Neville takes us to the repressive Russian society of the end of the Eighteenth Century, and introduces us to characters like Gregori Potemkin and Plato Zubov (both lovers of the Tsarina), as well as her son Paul I and her grandson Alexander I, who turns out to have a decisive role in the appearance of the cloth that covers the chess pieces. With such amazing destinations at its disposal, the novel voyages to many victories.
Men of science and culture
The real historic personae who make appearances in The Eight are not restricted to political figures, or even to those who take active roles in the action of the story. In fact, there is an extensive list of exceptional minds woven, like a dense web, into the narrative by Neville, as if no great man of science, art or letter could have escaped the influence of this remarkable chess set.
For obvious reasons, the most frequent appearances are made by scientists and mathematicians, whose numerological theories are connected with the number eight, or with alchemy, computing and physics. Inevitably, there are eight thinkers who appear in the book. These are, in chronological order:
Pythagoras (582 b.c.-507 b.c). There are three pages dedicated to the life and theories of the creator of his eponymous Theory, and also of the Pythagorean school. A man whose mystical ideas, especially those related to the Golden Mean, the musical harmony of the cosmos and the divine nature of numbers, adds intellectual weight to some of the most fantastic connections established in the book. Pythagoras’s conviction that mathematics rules the universe is an essential premise in Neville’s book, which she recognizes by paying homage to him in the 15th chapter where Nim and Fibonacci make appearances.
Leonardo of Pisa, Fibonacci (c.1170-1250). Another decisive figure in The Eight–even to the extent of being a character in a book written by Velis’s mentor, Ladislaus Nim on Fibonacci’s Numbers, this Italian mathematician is today famous for the sequence of numbers that takes his name and who, as Neville explains in chapter 15, popularized the decimal system of Arab origin in Europe, thanks to his travels in the Mediterranean, a fact which allows the author to make some important connections between Europe and Africa. Neville is also interested in the Italian–as other writers like Dan Brown and Javier Sierra would be later–because of his discoveries about spiral forms in nature.
Theophrastus von Hohenheim, “Paracelsus” (1493-1541). An astrologer, doctor and Swiss alchemist, described by Neville as “the father of modern chemistry”. He is mentioned in The Eight as a precursor to Isaac Newton and as a bridge between mysticism and science. Like the astronomer Johannes Kepler and the Kabbalist and necromancer Henry Cornelius Agrippa, both also cited by Neville, Paracelsus represents the most esoteric areas of scientific progress.
Isaac Newton (1643-1727). “Man invented Reason to help him decipher the formulas created by God. There is a code behind everything in nature– and every code has its key”. The person who says that in chapter 23 of The Eight, (while in an imaginary conversation with Voltaire after reading the diaries of Richelieu that discuss the Montglane Service) is the same man who gave us Newton’s Law of Gravitation, the Principia Mathematica, and who invented classical mechanics. Another example of an historical figure that Neville puts to her service, the cameo appearance of this genius is brilliantly used by the author in a feat of intellectual daring that is just as fictitious, and just as effective, as the celebrated apple that fell on Newton’s prodigious head.
Leonhard Euler (1707-1783). Although he was born in Basle, this physician and mathematician renowned for his prodigious memory–he was famously capable of reciting The Aeneid from memory after being struck blind–lived in Saint Petersburg during two long periods 1727-1741 and 1766-1783. As well as having a notoriously stormy relationship with Voltaire, with whom he had frequent arguments while both were at the Enlightenment court of Frederick II of Prussia, Euler proves to be an ideal way for Neville to link the Montglane Service with Catherine the Great, recounting the conversation between them that the Tsarina recalls to the Abbess in Chapter 6. According to this story, the still unmarried Catherine, during a visit to Prussia on her way to Russia, meets Euler, who tells her about his bad relationship with Voltaire and the king–and of the future of her relationship with the Game. He also talks to her about the secret societies of the Freemasons and the Rosicrucians, whose predecessors he suggests were the creators of the fabulous Montglane Service. Neville, not content with giving Euler the role of connector in this Machiavellian puzzle, also mentions him as the creator–which he was–of the Horse’s Pilgrimage [Knight’s Tour] in chess. An act of justice, without doubt, to one of the most influential, tireless and, unfortunately for him, unknown, mathematicians in history.
Joseph Fourier (1768-1830). He makes a surprising appearance in the penultimate chapter as part of the Napoleonic expedition to Cairo, where he served as a physicist and mathematician. Fourier, who after the Revolution, was saved from the guillotine because of the fall of Robespierre, is the scientific “cherry” on the cake, whom The Eight uses to assist in the final resolution of its mysteries. During a fortuitous meeting with Shahin and little Charlot, the clairvoyant son of Mireille who defies Napoleon, Fourier affirms that he is studying the physics of vibrations, and that he has uncovered the hidden secrets of numbers. Shahin, anticipating the conclusion of the novel, corrects him by claiming that the Islamic chemist Al-Jabir ibn-Hayan (c. 721-c. 815)–also a real historic figure, though better known to the West as Geber–had already made the same discovery, centuries earlier, and had been cursed for hiding it–in the Montglane Service.
John Newlands (1838-1898). As surprising as the reference to Geber and more than sufficient to silence those who disdain the scope of the scientific references in the book, the inclusion in chapter 20 of this English chemist and precursor to Mendel in the establishment of the periodic table, is a perfect example of Neville’s ability to hook her narrative onto the lives of great scientists. His singular theory on the “Law of Octaves” inherited from his musical foundation and through which each eighth chemical element shares certain essential properties, is taken advantage of by the admirably erudite Cat Velis who uses it, no less, to makes connections between Pythagoras’s theories and quantum mechanics.
Albert Einstein (1879-1955). Although it is anecdotal, the presence of the artifice of the Theory of Relativity could not be missing in a novel like The Eight, which even dares to relate the Montglane Service with the concepts of the Nobel prize-winning German scientist. Lily Rad’s grandfather Mordecai claims to have met Einstein in Zurich, although all he has to say of him is that “he loved Mozart” and that he was a “competent violinist”.
While we are on the subject of music, in an earlier chapter Neville introduces us to the German composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), who is perhaps the most significant creative genius in The Eight alongside the painter David. His appearance takes place in Chapter 9, during the story that the musician and chess player Andrè Philidor tells David. In it, Philidor speaks of a visit to Frederick the Great in which, among other musical prodigies, the Kapellmeister or “chapel master” Bach (who really did make this visit in 1747) attempts to compose a musical piece inspired by Euler’s Knight’s Tour. Euler also finds himself present in the court at that moment, due to a serendipitous plot device. In the later conversation between Philidor, Euler, and Bach, the great musician reveals himself to be an important piece in the game when he affirms that “mathematics are music” and he introduces himself as an initiate in the secrets of “the Great Architect”–affirming to Philidor’s and Euler’s astonishment that: “Those who understand the architecture of music will understand the power of the Montglane Service, because both are one”.
Although it seems impossible that so many great minds could appear in a single novel, there are, in fact, even more historical personalities hidden within the pages of The Eight. Without attempting to mention them all here, and leaving aside those whom we have already cited like the philosophers Voltaire, Rousseau and Franklin, the present section will close by discussing four men of culture who play a surprising role in the story.
The first three are the literary figures James Boswell (1740-1795), William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and William Blake (1757-1827), who appear on more than one occasion. It is during an unexpected meeting with Mireille at an exhibition by Andrè Philidor, described by Neville in Chapter 23, where they make their most important contribution to the book. Sitting in Parloe’s Cafe in London, after Mireille has just arrived from her interchange in Paris with Charlotte Corday, the three admit having met to discuss the Montglane Service. Boswell, the celebrated Scottish author of The Life of Samuel Johnson, whom Neville presents as a drunken degenerate, makes a swift exit when he finds out Mireille’s intentions. But Wordsworth, the romantic poet who was only twenty-three in 1792, and Blake, the great poet, mystic and engraver, who at the age of thirty-five is on a search for the chess set after finding out about it from his dead brother, tell Mireille about the meeting in which Newton and Voltaire identify the game with the philosopher’s stone. Both poets, before saying goodbye to Mireille and promising to immortalize her in a poem, first introduce the young woman, and with her the reader, to the secrets of transmutation.
Revealed at the end of the book, in the final chapter of The Eight, a painter appears on the scene whom we should not ignore in this discussion on men of culture in The Eight. Chosen perhaps because painting, Neville’s great hobby, is a constant presence in the book and because in 1832 he made a convenient six-month journey to Algeria, the French painter Eugene Delacroix (1798-1893) occupies a place of honor in the story: supposedly discovered by Mireille before she drinks the elixir of the Game, the painter of Liberty Leading the People, suspected of being the illegitimate child of Talleyrand (which is fact), and therefore a stepbrother to Mireille’s children (which is fiction), receives the order to illustrate, on the walls of the Tassili, the paintings that two hundred years later will help Cat Velis to triumph in the final moves of the game.
The Game of Montglane, while bringing together those players who will carry out their own designs in the areas of of politics, science and culture, also brings us full circle, when Neville connects it all to the universal rituals of chess, requiring a group of people who are perhaps the most appropriate to occupy the squares of her story.
The Chess Players
Guided by intuition, like artists, but also by method and intelligence, like scientists, the last figures that Neville invites to her game–last only in the sense of this overview, of course–are the chess players. Disseminated throughout the book and united by their specific vocabulary–fegatello, giuoco piano, zugzwang and j’adoube –”I adjust”– and even with references to the Gottingen Manuscript that Lily mentions in chapter 5 (a Latin scroll that describes openings, which is considered the oldest text that exists referring to modern chess), at least a dozen Grand Masters, famous names for any chess aficionados are stacked up on Neville’s chess board.
In some cases, these geniuses are used in the headings of chapters, as occurs with the two Soviet grandmasters, Mikhail Botvinnik (1911-1995) and David Bronstein (1924-2006), and the Polish grandmaster, Savielly Tartakower (1887-1956), who is mentioned in regard to his famous distinction between tactics and strategy, and the Swiss Victor Korchnoi (born in Leningrad in 1931), Anatoly Karpov’s great rival, from whom Neville takes the beautiful but terrible story of the mouse who hungrily slips his thin form into a coconut, only to find himself trapped and doomed after having fattened up. Lily makes other brief references to great players who have a role in the story, like the Cuban Jose Raul Capablanca (1888-1942), called “the chess machine” and considered the greatest Hispanic player in history, or as an example of derangement, the
American player Paul Morphy, a pioneer in the Nineteenth Century, who, having lived between 1837 and 1884, found that he could not compete according to modern rules.
But, if there are two chess players that stand out in The Eight, these are, undoubtedly the legendary figures of Andre Philidor (1726-1795) and Bobby Fischer (1943-2008). The first, who in reality was Francois-Andre Danican, was a musician and French champion who marked an epoch thanks to his superiority over his rivals (typified by his famous blindfold exhibitions at the already-mentioned Parloe’s Cafe), and also for the unquestionable contributions to the theory and practice of chess, including his famous sentence that “the pawns are the soul of chess” which is quoted in The Eight. Mentioned in Diderot’s Encyclopedia, as Neville points out, Philidor is an important piece in the game of the novel, which leads the author to connect him with Euler, Bach, David and Robespierre in regard to the secrets of the Montglane Service. At one point, Valentine and Mireille listen to one of Philidor’s operas, Tom Jones, in the company of Madame de Stael.
Bobby Fischer –who died, as fate would have it, in 2008 [the same date when the sequel to The Eight–”The Fire”–was published] — is without doubt the most popular chess player in history, not only for his “match of the century” against Boris Spassky, but also for his eccentricities and political conflicts with the American government, which eventually led him to adopt Icelandic citizenship and to retire from public life. Recounted in numerous books and films, his famous adolescence as a child prodigy and his struggle with Spassky in Reykjavik in 1972, has made him the most iconic figure in the history of chess. In 1973, Lily and Cat discuss this epic match from the previous summer. Also mentioned is Ladislaus Nim in Chapter 7 who bases his prestige as a player on having faced Fischer over the chessboard. A vital presence in a story about a legendary chessboard, the legendary Fischer is here a symbol of chess genius. It is worth remembering, before we move further in this section into the universe of chess, that the Nobel Prize-winner Elias Canetti, in his well-known work, Auto de Fe, describes a character called Fisher, who is determined to become a chess champion. The real Fischer made the story come true, although he was born in 1943 and Canetti’s novel takes place in 1935, eight years before the future champion existed.
THE BOARD GAME
Defined by G.W. Leibniz as “too much of a game to be science and too scientific to be a game”, chess is an art with an intimate connection to literature, even to the point where the fate of the pieces on a chessboard has been inspiring legions of writers since distant ages. In fact, the most popular legend on its origin–that it was born in India after a group of wise men recreated a battle between two brothers on a tiled floor, using chariots, soldier, elephants and horses–comes from the Persian poet, Firdausi, who already in the Tenth Century, had celebrated the game in his Book of Kings [Shahnamah]. Derived etymologically from the Arabic al-sitrany (and in other languages like French and Catalan, from the Latin scacum, the Iranian shah–which means “king”, origin of the exclamation, check-mate!, or shah-mat, “defeated king”), chess continues to live on in the post-”Deep Blue” era, the computer that, in 1997, defeated world champion Garry Kasparov. Within literary creation, where its trace disappears until the time of Alfonso X, the Wise, and his Book of Chess, Dice and Board Games, from 1238, every year numerous novels and specialized publications emerge on chess, demonstrating that many writers, despite such prestigious precedents, hope to win spaces on the chessboard of fiction. Thanks to The Eight, Katherine Neville has earned the right to the title of Grand Master of this long list. Now, it is time to find out why, and also, to a lesser extent, discover who are some of her principle competitors. Those other writers who also have a gift for strategy, and who use chess to plan adventures determined by a much wider vision than the simple opposition between black and white pieces.
Enlightened Kings (A Literary Dynasty)
A unique piece, essential for the game, “the king” in regard to the relationship between literature and chess could be no other (with the permission of King Alfonso X), than Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977). In his autobiography, Speak Memory, the Russian maestro admits to having spent vast amounts of time resolving the poetry within chess problems. An experienced player, among whose opponents was the director Stanley Kubrick (a habit, as film fans will recall, that was inherited by the computer HAL 9000 who plays with the astronaut Frank Poole in 2001: a Space Odyssey), the author of novels like King, Queen, Knave wrote about this fusion of science and sport in Pale Fire and, above all, in his book The Defense (1929). In this novel, filmed by Marleen Gorris as The Luzhin Defense with John Turturro and Emily Watson, Nabakov tells the story of the turmoil of Alexander Luzhin, a champion at a low point in his life, looking to find in chess the harmony that has eluded him everywhere else. Structured around a game inspired by the “immortal” Anderssen-Kieseritzsky (a legendary match from 1851), The Defense resembles a chessboard in its linguistic games. The psychologically profound Luzhin is based on the famous Russian player Alexander Alekhine (1892-1946). The book is a king’s delight.
A host of other illustrious writer are also on Nabokov’s team, among them Jorge Luis Borges, an aficionado and occasional player. Borges, who learnt chess from his father, who used it to explain the story of the tortoise and the hare to him, wrote two celebrated sonnets about chess, which are mentioned by Neville in The Eight (and which preface the beginning of this appendix). The Argentinean maestro who, like both Dante and Goethe, liked to mention chess in many of his texts, is also famous among chess fans for his story The Secret Miracle, in which the player Jaromir Hladik has a dream in 1939 about a very long game between two families, only to awaken with the sound of the arrival in Prague of the tanks of the Third Reich.
Also, for their stature, more than for the number or quality of their allusions, the two greatest kings of universal literature should be mentioned here: one, William Shakespeare, who has Miranda play chess with Fernando in Act V Scene I of The Tempest, which ends with her accusing him of cheating; the other, Miguel de Cervantes, caused Sancho Panza to reflect in Chapter XII of Book II of Quijote, earning the famous elegy of the celebrated nobleman who compares life and theater with “the game of chess; how, so long as the game lasts, each piece has its own particular role, and when the game is finished they are all mixed, jumbled up and shaken together, and stowed away in the bag, which is much like ending life in the grave.”
More queen than king, for obvious reasons, and in any case unfettered by the grand literary ambitions of the aforementioned, Katherine Neville does merit, thanks to The Eight, a place in the dynasty of writers who have written about chess in their work. Like Nabokov, for example, the author uses a legendary player–Alexander Alekhine–as the basis for an important character in the novel. The character is also a Russian and also called Alexander: Solarin. From his French nationalization to a childhood alongside his brother and grandmother, who taught him to play chess, the parallels between Solarin and Alekhine are clear, but they become unavoidable when we discover, just as Neville recreates in the story of Solarin, that Alekhine was accused of espionage and closely controlled by the Soviet authorities up to the point where he was forced into exile (and no doubt spied upon by the KGB). Borges’s quote, whose lucid vision of who moves whom in life and beyond, is not only the heading of one of Neville’s chapter, it also her intention when controlling, literally, the movements of her characters. Without comparing her to Cervantes, Shakespeare (whom Neville refers to in Chapter 19, “The Death of Kings”) or other superb exponents in the field like Julio Cortazar, the aforementioned Canetti, Samuel Beckett of Endgame and the Russians, Bulgakov and Tolstoy, it could be said that the references to chess in The Eight are among the most original that exist in literature. This I will argue in the following pages, though the non-presumptuous Katherine Neville would probably demur. Nonetheless, it is she who makes Kamel say to the oil minister “the game continues, like life. “The King is dead– long live the King”. This saying could well be applied to Neville, whether or not you have read Nabokov.
The Power of the Lady (Modern Heroines)
More queen than king, Katherine Neville is one of the few female writers to use chess in her books. Anne Bronte did, though only briefly, in The Tenant of Willfeld Hall, as did Agatha Christie later in The Big Four, a work in the Poirot series whose eleventh chapter is titled “a chess problem” and features an American chess player who is murdered in the middle of a game against a Russian (aside: Fiske is English). More recently, an author who featured an amazing chess game in her book was J.K. Rowling in the penultimate chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, where the child magician and his friends, Ron and Hermione, have to play against a gang of Death Eaters in a life-sized chess game which eventually leads to Ron offering a gambit–that is, to sacrifice himself so that the Order of the Phoenix can triumph. Aside from these examples, perhaps the only great lady in chess literature would be Carroll’s Alice from the already mentioned Through the Looking Glass. Alice, herself, adopts the role of a white pawn, playing until she reaches the eighth square–thus, chapter 24 of The Eight is called “The Eighth Square” and headed by a quote from Carroll– to become a queen.
Alongside the parallels between Alice and Cat Velis, which we’ll take a look at in the next section, the lack of literature by women in which chess has a central role could have something to do with the fact that it wasn’t until the Fifteenth Century that the queen, in the powerful incarnation that we recognize today, replaced the old vizier as guardian or “alferza”, a fact that some historians attribute to the arrival of powerful sovereigns like the Catholic Queen, Isabella. For the chess player Lily Rad, Cat Velis’s companion in The Eight–described in the book as “the Josephine Baker of chess”–the question has more to do with the marginalization of women in the world of chess, which the characters themselves encounter in Chapter 5. So, aside from complaining that she is only regarded as a women’s champion (“chess was a man’s game, and to win you had to beat men” says Velis), Lily is capable of standing up to a sponsor like John Hermanold for having restricted women’s access to his club and she even can make sexist jokes about it: (“Chess is an Oedipal game” Lily says “–it consists of killing the king and screwing the queen”.)
The importance of the feminine in The Eight is not only restricted to chess. The book features two strong and intrepid women, capable of surviving in times and places that are hostile to their sex. In a way, Neville’s novel could be seen as a celebration of the power of women in fiction. The book features strong female characters throughout: the various nuns, the Abbess Helene de Roque, Catherine the Great, the influential Madame de Stael, the hardened Letizia Ramolino Buonaparte, the brave Charlotte Corday, the willful receptionist Therese, the perverse Catherine Grand, the persistent Minnie Renselaas. Anticipating the Dan Brown phenomenon by fifteen years, The Eight was also one of the first novels to anticipate an interest in the ancient cults to the Goddess. The Lunar Goddess is revealed in Chapter 21, thanks to the Montglane Service. Associated with the White Queen and known by names like Ishtar, Astarte, Kali, Cibele and Kar — and the root, according to Neville, of names like Carthage, Carcassone, Khartoum, Karnak and the Carpathians — the Goddess and her rituals are explained in the novel and related to the number eight and to the Montglane Service, but this does not detract from the feminist intention: “The words of her name run in my head. Why had I never heard them before? They were in carmine, cardinal and cardiac; in carnal and carnivorous– and Karma, the eternal cycle of reincarnation, transformation and forgetting. She was the word made flesh … [or “caracole”] the snail and the spiral force that constitutes its own universe.”
The Lady and the Goddess form, as millions of readers now know, constitutes one of the biggest secrets of The Eight. A majestic move. From queen, to mother to creator.
Castles Facing the Mirror (Structure and Tradition)
With its solid movements across the board, the piece that best symbolizes the construction of literary structures based on chess games, is the castle, (the “rook”, from the Persian ruhkh). Examples of the rook’s appearance, almost as numerous as ways of mating, are not only the ones of Carroll in Through the Looking Glass and Neville in The Eight. Here, we should mention the brief but intense Chess Story [in English, The Royal Game] by Stefan Zweig (1943), a novella that interweaves two plot lines that take place aboard a transatlantic liner: the game between the brilliant Mirko Czentovicz and the enigmatic Mr. B., the latter, a fugitive from the Nazis who had survived a hellish imprisonment by playing chess games against himself in his head. As remarkable in style as it is in game play, the book is a prime example of the long tradition of stories based on a confrontation across a chessboard, among which it is worth remembering Book V of Pantagruel by Rabelais, where dance and game are recreated; the parody How to Get Rid of Chess, by Woody Allen, with an argumentative game through correspondence between the protagonists Vanderbedian and Gossage; and other works that employ chess moves, especially checks, checkmates and castling, metaphorically (for example, the detective story Knight’s Gambit by William Faulkner, The Turkish Gambit by Boris Akunin and the Zugzwang by Rodolfo Walsh and the Catalan writer Eduard Marquez, whose allusions to the game which lead inevitably to defeat are reminiscent of the moment in The Eight in which Cat and Mireille get their revenge in Chapter 23 (a chapter that, appropriately, is called “Zugzwang”).
Today, thanks to the Internet, there are dozens of theories, some sounder than others, regarding the clues to the game that lie at the heart of The Eight and with that, the avatars of her characters. The author, in different interviews, has hinted that a game exists and that it is encrypted in the novel, but the truth is that none of the theories have definitively resolved the issue. The most plausible idea, aside from the one that each fan of the books can work out for themselves, is the one that connects the game played in The Eight with the game played by Alice in Through the Looking Glass. A living battle whose extravagant pieces include Humpty Dumpty and the Jabberwocky, and which is resolved in eleven crazy moves, although as Carroll maintains, the game in his story is “correctly set up and resolved in terms of the moves”. Beyond the repeated allusions that Neville makes to the Victorian genius (in Chapters 6, 18, 20, 24 and 28), some of both Cat and Mireille’s movements (from Cat’s first long move, to her coronation as a queen) give rise to a spectacular game, both of which are remarkably symmetrical, despite the two hundred years that separate them. Is this enough evidence to point to Carroll as the secret behind The Eight?
Without wanting to close the debate definitively, I will offer three clues that support this interpretation: One, in Chapter 20, is offered by Minnie Renselaas, that is Mireille, when she warns Cat that all pawns can aspire to be a queen. The second, some pages later, is represented by Cat when she calls Minnie an “important player” and says: “if I’m not mistaken, she knows more about this game than simply how to move the pieces”. Neville ends the conversation like this: “ ‘Don’t make a mistake,’ said Minnie, smiling like a Cheshire Cat”. If this unusual allusion to the cat from Carroll’s books wasn’t eloquent enough, the second reference is even more explicit. In the heading to Chapter 18 the following fragment is reproduced:
“Alice: ‘It’s a huge game of chess that’s being played all over the world. Oh what fun it is! How I wish I was one of them! I wouldn’t mind being a pawn, if only I could join–though of course I would like to be a queen best!’ Red Queen: ‘That’s easily managed. You can be the White Queen’s pawn if you like, as Lily is too young to play–and you’re in the second square to begin with. When you get to the eighth square you’ll be a queen.’ “
Aside from neatly summing up the plot of the novel, Carroll’s Lily could be a reflection of the Lily that accompanies Cat in similar circumstances. Lily, like the flower of the same name, is a white flower that wants to be queen in Through the Looking Glass, and is Blanche’s daughter, the white queen, in The Eight. Coincidence? Maybe, or maybe not, this is one of the questions about which Katherine Neville prefers to keep silent.
The Bishop’s Diagonal (Symbols at War)
Like Lope de Vega in El Genoves Liberal “Pieces of chess are we / and the world a board / but in the same sack / pawn and kings walk”), the metaphor of chess as a representation of the world has been used by dozens of writers, the majority of whom sympathize with the bishop due to its diagonal movement and its connotation in other languages (alfil, in Spanish from the Arabic for elephant; laufer, messenger, in German; fou, madman or buffoon, in French), which seem to express the symbolic properties of the game. The novel La Torre Herida por el Rayo, by Fernando Arrabal–portrayed on the screen under the title La Diagonale du Fou–perfectly illustrates this representation: like Zweig, Nabokov, and Neville it is structured around a dual, this time one between the players Capablanca and Tartakower. In the novel, Tharsis and Amary play against each other in a world championship that reflects two irreconcilable views of the world, one rational and the other instinctive.
Before Arrabal, the author of half a dozen books on chess and a veteran correspondent on the game, other authors have employed recurring metaphors, all of them implicit in The Eight. The most common, chess as war, is championed by Tolstoy with his references to chess as a battle in dozens of paragraphs in Ana Karenina and War and Peace. Also, as is so well evoked in The Eight, with the legend of the Appointment in Samarra in chapter 2, there is the dual with death, similar to the famous scene from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (which Neville also refers to, significantly, in her heading to Chapter 8). Without overlooking, due to their tremendous value and emotional impact, essential novels like the The Luneburg Variation, by the Italian writer Paolo Maurensig, and A Stalemate Lasts But a Moment, by the Lithuanian Icchokas Meras (two works joined by terrible games in which different Jewish children need to win to save other prisoners from the Holocaust), yet the symbolic readings on chess reach their highest point in The Eight. Above all, because Neville manages to include all of these previous readings in her novel: chess as a representation of life, chess as combat, chess as a struggle between rivals, chess as a dual with death. In her case, however, chess is all this and a lot more (“The Montglane Service was bigger than the sum of its parts”, says Cat Velis in Chapter 15). To say it in the words of the novel, chess is “an instrument of power”, a “Pandora’s box”, a “secret code”, a “formula of evil”, the “elixir of life”– Chess is capable of containing the good and the bad within human beings, like the big temptations, like the formula of original sin; something that from within the pages of the book captures everyone, because that is the power of metaphors. From this point of view, anyone could reflect, as Cat Velis does in Chapter 7, that suddenly a move can change the course of a life and say to you: “You’re playing a game of chess”. Unfortunately, there isn’t always a Solarin to help and say: “Don’t worry, I am a master of this game and I am on your side.”
The Horse Leaps (Numbers in Movement)
“And number, then, leads to truth.” It isn’t a coincidence that chapter 27 of The Eight opens with this quote from Plato, nor that the novel includes a wealth of mathematical, geometrical and numerological games. The Horse’s Pilgrimage [The Knight’s Tour], the formula that allows the horse to travel across all the squares on the board without repeating any of them, is one of those pastimes, resolved in different manners in the book, by Euler, Franklin and Solarin. Converted into an icon among the pieces, the knight (horse, caballo in Spanish), is probably the most important piece in a Spanish novel that closely resembles The Eight: La Tabla de Flandes [The Flanders Panel, 1994] by Arturo Perez-Reverte. In this book, in response to questions like ´Quis necavit equitem? [“Who killed the knight?”], located in the painting The Chess Game, by Pieter Van Huys: an enigmatic story begins, based on the contents of the painting. That story featured a mysterious killer, a failed player and a secret that could even wind up changing the history of Europe. The book also contains, of course, diverse mathematical conundrums.
Staying in the same game in The Eight, other riddles that appear include magic paintings, cryptic crosswords, keys to biblical verses and, above all, readings and re-readings of the number 8 in all its variations, including multiples and divisors. It is worth mentioning enigmas like the central prophecy of the book “on the fourth day of the fourth month, then will come the Eight” and affirmations like “I think that the universe is like an enormous mathematical game played on a huge scale”, a line spoken in the novel by Johann Sebastian Bach. A brief analysis like this one could never cover all the games in The Eight, so it is best to let the reader discover them, which, of course, is one of the biggest pleasures of reading the book.
Returning to the number 8, however, it is possible to underline the principle passages in which it appears, many of these building up to form part of the final moves of the novel. The first, hidden in that “fourth day of the fourth month” that the fortuneteller announces, is a double birthday. Then, there are the eight black servants who transport the chess set to Charlemagne on his 40th birthday; the eight squares squared on all boards; the sign in the shape of an eight on Cat Velis’s hand; the 8th Law of Newlands, of the Pythagorean Octave; of the form of 8 of the labrys or Minoan axe (used to kill the king every eight years in a ritual celebrated on April 4th); of the eighth square that Alice has to reach to become a queen; of the eight chess pieces that Cat and Lily find in the cave; of the birth of Elisa, Mireille’s daughter, on October fourth; of the eight evoked by Hermes’ caduceus, with its intertwined serpents; of the double helix, reminiscent of the number eight, and which is the structure of human DNA; and this list goes on, almost infinitely, like the infinity that is referred to in Chapter 15, alerting the reader to the infinite signs like these that occur in the novel:
“I yanked a piece of paper out of my briefcase in the moving cab, “says Cat, “and drew a figure eight. Then I turned the paper sideways. It was the symbol for infinity”.
The Pawn’s Soul (Secrets of the Endgame)
The number of possible moves in chess, according to science, isn’t infinite, but it is a number that is difficult for a human being to conceive of: a one followed by one hundred octillions of zeros (Cat Velis summarizes it by saying “the possible combinations are many more than the total number of stars in the known universe”). Among other things that exist in The Eight, there are some other pieces that we shouldn’t forget in this round-up: those pieces that are supposedly less important, those that Philidor returned to their dignity with the sentence “the pawns are the soul of chess.” Going beyond the possible moral, social or political readings in chess, the sentence brings to mind that there are hundreds, or even thousands of authors who have written about chess, even if it was only in passing: Edgar Allan Poe, Miguel de Unamuno, Milan Kundera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Raymond Chandler, Ian Fleming, Ian Watson, Guillermo Martinez, Patrick Suskind, Ignacio Padilla, Ruben Gallego, Fernando Pessoa, Arthur Conan Doyle– Soldiers in the war between chess and literature, these authors and the others cited in this essay, have taught us that human beings, like literary characters, move around, collide and pass away in infinite ways on the chessboard of existence.
The characters in The Eight, to conclude with one last game, also fulfill different roles. Mireille and Cat go from being pawns to becoming queens. But what about the rest? Some are pieces, specified by the author in her last chapters, others are signposted and there are even some without an apparent attribution. Who is whom, in Neville’s game? What pieces do the two teams hide, the black and white, in each of the ages that are visited in the novel? That is all part of the fun for the many readers who amuse themselves on the Internet with lists and long discussions of the subject. If anyone is keen to try the challenge, I will include below a list of suggestions, taken from the book itself and from a consensus on the Internet. They are not definitive, of course, and it is a list that contains a lot of grey areas and unresolved contradictions. The list doesn’t help us to win the game, but perhaps it could help us not to end in a draw. They represent the fact that Cat Velis realizes in Chapter 20: Everyone is a piece and all their movements imitate real events.
Modern black team: Harry Rad (king), Cat Velis (queen), Lily (bishop), Kamel and Solarin (knights), Nim and Therese (rooks) and Fiske, Valerie, Wahad, Carioca and others (pawns).
Modern white team: El-Marad (king), Blanche (queen), Llewellyn (bishop), Saul (knight), Sharrif and Brodski (rook) and Hermanold, Petard and others (pawns).
Old black team: Talleyrand (king), Mireille (queen), David and Charlotte Corday (bishops), Napoleon and Shahin (knights), the Abbess and Letizia Buonaparte (rooks) and Valentine, Courtiade, Madame de Stael, Elisa Buonaparte, Franklin, Charlot and others (pawns).
Old white team: Marat (king), Catherine the Great [Catherine Grand?] (queen), Rousseau and Boswell (bishops), Philidor and Euler (knights), Robespierre and Zubov (rooks) and Diderot, Danton, Blake, Wordsworth, Arnold and others (pawns).
THE GAME OF GAMES
So, we finally arrive at the end of The Eight, at least in this short analysis. The game ends, a game illustrated in two quotes from Chapter 13, one about secrets–taken from The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse and the other from Sherlock Holmes, who says: “I play the game for the game’s own sake”. That’s why it is worth playing the game and finding the time to read novels like this, even at the risk of feeling like a chess piece yourself. In Chapter 6, the Abbess achieves her checkmate: “God is the supreme grandmaster of chess”. Borges, as always, goes further: “What God is there behind the plot?”. And there, perhaps, is the greatest achievement of The Eight: daring to play with God, or the Gods, and aspiring to play the eternal game.
RICARD RUIZ GARZON