The Chess Garden

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

At the age of seventy-seven, Dr. Gustav Uyterhoeven decides to give up his pleasant life of retirement in Dayton, Ohio, in order to travel to South Africa and care for civilians being uprooted by the Boer War. Between October 7, 1900, and June 12, 1901, he sends his wife Sonja twelve letters intended to be shared with all of their friends. The Uyterhoevens have maintained a permanent open house for years. It serves as a social and cultural center. Friends freely use their “Chess Garden” for playing board games and picnicking. Many bring their children, and it is the children who are especially fascinated by the letters the elderly doctor sends home. The arrival of each letter—by a circuitous route taking several months—is a special occasion. Sonja serves refreshments in the garden and reads the letters aloud.

Although—or perhaps because—Dr. Uyterhoeven is witnessing colorful and historic scenes in South Africa, he chooses to ignore reality in his letters. Instead he creates an imaginary land that he calls the Antipodes and tells an ongoing story about his adventures there. According to his first letter, he never even made it to South Africa but was swept away in a terrifying storm, nearly swallowed up by a maelstrom, and cast ashore in the Antipodes, a continent shaped somewhat like Australia.

The strangest thing about the Antipodes is that the inhabitants are all animated game pieces. Some resemble human beings and speak English. These are mostly chess pieces—pawns, knights, bishops, kings, and queens. They dominate the various kingdoms that make up the Antipodes, and like chess pieces everywhere, they are often in conflict. Other game pieces have personalities appropriate to their shape and function. Darts fly through the air like birds. Dominoes enjoy nothing more than to stand side by side in long lines and knock one another over. Checkers are able to travel by jumping over one another. Happy-go-lucky dice roll around in pairs, bumping into everything. There are also animated Pente stones, go pieces, marbles, poker chips, cribbage pegs, and Indian clubs. Only the anthropomorphic game pieces are able to communicate with the inquisitive doctor; the checkers and other so-called abstract pieces are friendly and amusing but silent, not unlike the comic-strip character Snoopy.

The Antipodes bears a resemblance to Oz and Wonderland. Readers may be reminded of Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelstrom” (1841) and “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket” (1838) as well as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). The doctor’s one-way voyage to the Antipodes will also remind some readers of William Butler Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (1927).

Unlike Frank L. Baum’s Dorothy and Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Uyterhoeven is in no hurry to get back home. He explores this strange land, sometimes alone, sometimes accompanied by an equally footloose inhabitant he meets along the way. Eventually he comes to a tall building shaped like a rook. It is the home and workshop of Eugene, a pawn who became separated from the rest of his chess set in a diaspora following the loss of their king. Eugene is a famous craftsman. He is preoccupied with collecting what he calls “goods,” objects that he considers the best of their kind because of their modesty, durability, and pure functional appropriateness. Uyterhoeven sees a bassinet, a hat stand, a drawing table, a milking stool, a sled, and other perfect items in Eugene’s workshop and eventually departs with a “good” cane, which he is allowed to borrow only on condition that he will use it and not sell it or give it away.

Once in possession of the ideal cane, Uyterhoeven discovers that there is a plot to get possession of Eugene’s “goods” and destroy them. He is approached many times by individuals he describes as “vandals,” who try to pressure him into selling his cane or trading it for something of ostensibly greater value. Yet Uyterhoeven keeps his promise to Eugene and thereby becomes involved in a series of adventures with sinister agents of John William, a bishop who resembles Cardinal Richelieu (Armand-Jean du Plessis) in his genius for intrigue.

Oddly enough, at the time of the reading of each of Uyterhoeven’s letters in the Chess Garden, an object found by one of the children seems to have come directly from the Antipodes and to relate directly to the latest episode. The reader eventually learns that Sonja Uyterhoeven is placing these little curiosities where they can readily be found in order to augment the verisimilitude of her husband’s stories. (Verisimilitude is one of author Brooks Hansen’s primary artistic concerns.) In his final letter, Uyterhoeven describes in metaphorical terms his feelings of being swallowed up by...

(The entire section is 1970 words.)