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In 2020, television viewers learned a smattering of chess from THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT, a television series based on a novel about a girl who plays chess in 1960s America. A chess-playing heroine and an epic historical backdrop also distinguish Gabriella Saab's debut novel THE LAST CHECKMATE. This book is a young adult novel, the genre is less mystery or crime fiction than suspense, and the historical world-building is fatally flawed in numerous outrageous ways, which, in Holocaust fiction, is no small imperfection. In fact, THE LAST CHECKMATE is most useful as a vivid demonstration of how not to write young adult fiction, or any kind of fiction, about historical genocide.
As Saab concedes in an afterword, THE LAST CHECKMATE is "not an entirely factual representation of the camp" at Auschwitz. This is a massive understatement. Saab alters details that really matters, makes Auschwitz look far less horrific than it was, and makes it the backdrop for a particularly unimaginative rip-off of The Hunger Games.
The plot is ridiculous, but I'll try to summarize it. THE LAST CHECKMATE opens at Auschwitz in April 1945. Polish Catholic resistance worker Maria Florkowska, an eighteen-year-old former inmate and chess whiz, has returned of her own free will. Maria's blonde hair has grown back and Auschwitz no longer smells like a death camp. Less traumatized that one would think, she "take[s] a breath to assure [her]self that the air is clean."
In flashback, we learn that in 1941, at age fourteen, she had been a resistance worker, saving Jewish children by placing them with Catholic families. She made a mistake, was caught, and the outcome was that she and her parents and kid siblings were sent to Auschwitz, where they were murdered. (At that time, all women and children were murdered upon arrival.)
An SS officer, Karl Fristch, saved Maria because he could tell from the pawn she clutched in her hand that he has something to learn from her chess skill. From then onward, Fritsch forces Maria to play endless games of chess for her life, against other prisoners. When she wins, he shoots her opponent dead.
Fourteen-year-old Maria is the only female in her cell block, but nothing worse than whipping happens to her. She shares her digs with a kindly priest, Father Maximilian Kolbe, who immediately befriends her. In 1982, Kolbe's real-world counterpart became a saint, and that's exactly how he is depicted in THE LAST CHECKMATE.
Saab depicts Father Kolbe as more human than his fellow prisoners, literally. "In a place where people fought over scraps like rabid dogs," Maria witnesses, "this man retained his humanity." He also teaches her that Auschwitz can provide life with "meaning," via this refreshing catechism:
Maria: I don't deserve God's grace.
Father Kolbe: None of us do, yet He gives it to us anyway.
Maria: Do you really believe that in a place like this?
Father Kolbe: It's in a place like this that I believe it most of all. How else could we find meaning amid [sic] such suffering?
His spiritual direction sustains her until he makes his saintliest moral choice. Then, she ends up with his rosary as a memento and a source of strength. Thus empowered, she attempts a dangerous strategy: she tries to "prompt Fritz into violating protocol when the kommandant was around to catch him," so he will be "transferred" to a less cushy outpost and, obviously, replaced with a kinder SS man.
There is a token Jewish character, the second-to-only woman allowed to survive. She, too, befriends Maria, but she's not as virtuous as Father Kolbe: she sleeps around with the guards. After the camp's liberation, this woman discovers that her children have survived, too, thanks to the generosity of good Polish Catholics. And of course, the concentration camp goons are Germans who call the locals "Poles," not "Polacks." In this fiction world, fascism is a German thing imposed upon Poland, not a Polish thing, not even in Auschwitz.
On the April day of her return to the concentration camp's lettered gates, Maria plans to play one final game of chess with the defeated Fritsch, but she carries a pistol in her skirt pocket. Can Maria resist shooting Fritsch across the chess table and instead personally bring about justice tempered with the mercy that is not strained?
By that point, I didn't care to find out. Saab's explanatory afterword provides more whitewashing of Fascism and genocide. Saab praises in mealy-mouthed language what Pope Pius XIII "did in secret to combat the Nazis" while admitting that "the Vatican's position" on Pius's legacy is "heavily disputed." Yes, it certainly is.
How do you solve a problem like this Maria? You can't.
§ Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and co-edits Reviewing the Evidence.
Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, December 2021
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