Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Mroek is primarily known as a playwright in Poland’s post-World War II avant-garde tradition, but throughout his literary career he has produced numerous short stories and cartoon collections. “Check!” is a prime example of his typically allegorical approach to literature in which, as his biographer remarked, his “characters are symbolic representation while situations illustrate theses.”

On a strictly literal level, “Check!” makes sense. The narrative has a clear beginning, middle, and end. Mroek’s plain verbal style reinforces the simplicity of his plot. The words themselves make inherent sense at the surface level. The reader knows what is happening—because the words reveal it in reportorial fashion—when the Bishop is recruited, when he dresses, receives instructions, tries to cheat and outwit the Rook, and when he and the King make their escape.

Though simple, Mroek’s language is also vivid and visual. For example, in describing the chess pieces the narrator says: “Only their feet, protruding from under the fantastic dress, remained normal, shod in a variety of old shoes. Above them necks and heads of horses, their teeth bared, each tooth the size of a tile, the severe-looking, geometric and crenelated Rooks, and saucer-like ruffs of the bishops.” It is this juxtaposition of “reality” and grotesque images that, as Martin Esslin, writing about the Theater of the Absurd, claims, allowed East European playwrights to produce something of significance without being censored. Additionally, the characters in “Check!” as in Mroek’s other short stories collected for The Ugupu Bird (1968), are anonymous. Each chess piece is an Everyman trapped in a dangerous closed society, and by extension, Everyman trapped in the modern world.

The absurdity arises, therefore, from the situations that Mroek describes so visually. The event reported is not the puzzle. “What does this mean?” is instead the puzzle. The ordinariness of the language highlights the seriousness of the fable’s “moral.” The elements of the logical plot, anonymous characters, and matter-of-fact tone combine to produce both a biting satire and tragic fable about the human condition in a world where people would have been better off if God had been dead because he is doing such a dreadful job of running the universe. If only life were a chess game!