The first review of one of the titles from this year's list. Other Press' Stalemate by Icchokas Meras was originally published in Lithuanian in 1963 and then a revised edition came out in 1998.
9th Book: Review Date May 8, 2006
May 8, 2006
Stalemate by Icchokas Meras
Translated from Lithuanian by Jonas Zdanys
2005 by Other Press 160 pages
Icchokas Meras has packed this smaller novel with a great deal of power. The setting is the Vilna ghetto during World War II and Commandant Schoger has demanded that all of the children of the ghetto will be sent off the next day. A Jewish elder, Abraham Lipman, has been sent by the ghetto council to speak to Schoger and he is offered a deal. It seems that Schoger has been playing chess against Lipman’s 17 year old son, Isaac, and losing regularly (though improving as a player). He offers to Lipman, one single game. If Schoger wins, the children will die, but Isaac will be spared. If Isaac wins, the children will be allowed to live, but Schoger will personally kill Isaac. A stalemate would allow everyone to live. Lipman accepts the offer.
Meras writes the book in sections and they rotate between those which detail Isaac’s life in the ghetto, and those which begin with descriptions of a particular move in the chess match, and finish up with details of the final days of Abraham Lipman’s other son and five daughters. I’m not much of a chess player, so if Meras made some connection between the particular moves and what occurred in the children’s lives, I didn’t catch it – but he didn’t need to as the sections are intriguing on their own.
The sections detailing Isaac’s life mainly deal with a girl named Esther, a sixteen year old that he is both best friends with, and interested in in a more serious manner. They are written mainly from Isaac’s point of view and have a sweetness to them that the other sections do not. Besides Isaac and Esther, the reader learns of Janek, a non-Jewish Pole who has taken it upon himself to be ghettoized in order to replace his best friend, Meika, who was Esther’s older brother, and who is now dead.
The other sections, after a quick exchange between Isaac and Schoger over the chess board, have a single statement from Abraham Lipman that he begat either a son or daughter and include his or her name. This is followed by their story – which brings about the various aspects one might encounter in a World War II ghetto.
In order there was Ina, his daughter who was a famous singer before the war, well-known through all of Europe; Rachel, his daughter who was experimented upon, allowed to have a child that she realizes was not her husband’s; Basia, his daughter who lives her life to extreme in the ghetto and city, sleeping around and trying to find something to feel; Kasrial, his son who accepts food, drink and the occasional female companionship in trade for information before he eventually takes his own life; Riva, his daughter who is part of the small regime that is fighting the Nazis; and Taibale, his youngest daughter, who was taken in by a non-Jewish couple just before the ghetto was created by a childless couple.
Each section is extremely well done – allowing the reader both some information and creating characters that the reader gets attached to incredibly quickly. And the learning of what has happened to each of Lipman’s children make his acceptance of Schoger’s offer to save the children of all the others that much greater. Through their actions, Abraham and Isaac show a dignity and spirit that most hope that they would be able to show given any circumstances, let alone the ones they face.