Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The Chess Player / Queen to Play

A couple of English-speaking friends showed their interest in following the blog. So I thought it would be a good idea to provide a translation into English for them and anyone who wants to read the review. I am aware that quite a few people have already written reviews of the book and above all, of the film. Nonetheless, I wanted to make my own contribution, even if it is a small one.

Heleni is a Greek chambermaid who lives in the island of Naxos. Brought up in a family with deep-rooted traditions, she leads a somewhat dull and monotonous existence, always living up to other people's expectations, as well as fulfilling all of her duties, both at home and elsewhere. The world that she inhabits is, accordingly, a small village in which there is no place for secrets and where the tiniest oddity would never go unnoticed. Heleni tends to daydream. She takes advantage of the long hours of work, during which she cleans rooms in an automatic way, to give free reign to her imagination. That is her one and only secret. Otherwise, her life is nothing out of the ordinary: life just goes by from work at the hotel and housework, to conversations with friends about the latest gossip (in which she never participates but as a listener) and the spare moments at the café to rest for a while and drink a glass of ouzo.

One day, upon doing her customary morning cleaning, Heleni notices that the guests lodged at room 17 have left on the table a beautiful board, on which a set of pieces rest. These strike her as mysterious. The chambermaid picks up from the floor one of the mysterious pieces and feels somewhat ashamed at not knowing where she should place it... The sixty four squares on the chessboard are still a universe unknown to her. Heleni has developed an instinct throughout her long years of work at the hotel, so that she is rarely wrong when trying to guess the nationality of her guests. The owners of the beautiful chessboard, who are French, are not an exception to this. Heleni will listen to them spellbound, in the same way that their language always catches her attention when she goes by the busy dining room. The flow of sounds coming out of their mouths brings to her mind the beauty and elegance of Paris. All told, the picture of the young French couple, her perfume, so spicy and heady, together with the curiosity that the mysterious game awakens in her, drive the chambermaid to make a decision: she will give her husband a chessboard for his birthday so that they will be able to play together.

However, it does not work out as she had planned. Her husband does not pay the slightest attention to the game and, ultimately, it strikes him as an extremely difficult game. Heleni starts to learn how to play on her own and, frustrated at the difficulties entailed by playing against "the machine", she requires assitance from a former teacher, highly-esteemed by everyone on the island. They meet regulary to play chess, which soon raises the curiosity of the islanders and fuels rumours, on an island where being unfaithful to your partner would be less serious than incurring in any kind of -for the provincials, unaccustomed to such things- eccentricity of the sort.

Heleni and her husband are on the verge of getting a divorce, mainly because her husband, Panis, feels abashed by the rumours and takes the situation pretty badly, as a personal affront. Heleni, knowing all too well the unwritten norms that decree what a woman's behaviour should be like on Naxos, decides from the very beginning to keep from her husband and from the whole village, her unusual recreational activity, which for her, in any case, has turned into what seems to be closer to a profession rather than to a game. The woman, who is well over forty, wishes she could share her hobby with her loved-ones, but knows that not even her closest friend would ever understand what she feels upon entering this -for her- brand-new world. Neither would they conceive of her behaviour as suitable for a woman in her age. They would think she had gone mad, at the very least. Her hobby, then, is doomed to remain a secret between her and old Kouros, her former school teacher, who never actually saw in her a particularly brilliant student but who all the same realises the change that the unassuming woman has undergone.

 After several months of hard training, Kouros finally manages to enrol Heleni for a chess championship that would take place in the Greek capital. She sets out for Athens, in the middle of the night, leaving behind her unsuspecting family. In the meantime, the professor, in poor health, falls seriously ill and has to be admitted to hospital.

Heleni during Chess Tournament

The chess player proves herself, finally encountering her defeat in the third round of the tournament. At long last Panis makes up his mind: the idea of getting a divorce, together with the anger that he felt before give way to the pride that he feels for his wife, a modest woman with great determination, who through hard work succeeds in achieving what she set out to do. During her trip to Athens, Heleni purchases that wonderful perfume used by the Parisian lady who owned the chessboard. She comes back home to Naxos with the conviction that she has lost everything in vain for the sake of an unrealised dream; that perhaps it might not have been worth the trouble, after all. Nonetheless, the story wraps up with the assurance that her sacrifice has borne fruit, and that once and for all she can count on the unconditional support of her husband, her boss and all islanders, who impatiently await her arrival and feel proud that she has represented them in the well-known tournament.

This wonderful book, simple and deep at the same time, is worth at the very least a brief reflection. Professor Kouros, who had a vocation for letters since very early in life, albeit descended from a family of shepherds, could be considered to be Heleni's mentor. At the end of the day, he takes her up on her challenge to guide her throughout her apprenticeship. The narrator emphasises Kouros' intelectual capacity as well as the role that it played in his life. The moment came, our narrator explains, when the professor stopped feeling attached to the world sorrounding him in order to enter the world of imagination and literature. Very much in the same way that the knight from La Mancha found a haven in Chivalric literature, professor Kouros took comfort in his books. The day came when he renounced all social commitments, forgoing his life for a universe that struck him as more real than that of his own.

The professor knew that Heleni's initiation would not be easy, and that she would probably feel tempted to throw in the towel, not having, as he did, the reassurance that he could draw from his books. The woman, nonetheless, would strive to cram her head with all of the tactics that she was supposed to learn in order to improve her technique, not caring at all about what others might make of it.

At the end of his life, Kouros is alone and ill, we might think. However, he leaves this world with the reassurance that he has put on a sound footing a woman who drowned. Since Heleni initially could only count on the professor, the latter is absolutely irreplaceable in her voyage of discovery.


A recent film adaptation of the novel has been produced. Interestingly enough, the author of the book herself has worked as a scriptwriter and short producer.
The screen version is a Franco-German adaptation that sets the action in a small village on the island of Corsica. The village very clearly mirrors the ambiance characteristic of the Greek island that Heleni inhabits in the novel. Tradition, male and female stereotypes and clichés become manifest in the framework of the story.

It is noteworthy that the film captures accurately all of the elements that bring to Heleni's mind the memory of the French couple playing chess. The woman wishes she could find herself in a similar situation, idyllic as it was, in which her husband and her would play chess together, bathed in majestic light; she would be clad in a most elegant silk nightdress, with a wide smile on her face and the fire of love in her eyes.

To wrap up, it is worth mentioning that both the screen version and the original novel depict the metamorphosis undergone by a simple, unassuming woman with intellectual aspirations -that initially lie concealed and unconfessed- which verge on spirituality, trascending purely worldly affairs. Ultimately, it is through the intervention of a quaint character that Heleni's aspirations finally materialize, and in turn she will also make an imprint on this character's life.


Henrichs, Bertina. La Joueuse d'échecs (The Chess Player). 2005. Leana Levi: n.p.
Joueuse. 2009. Dir. Caroline Bottaro. Screenplay: Caroline Bottaro. Based on a novel by B. Henrichs. Studio Canal.

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