October 8, 2012

"Fischer vs. Spassky"

By Lara Vapnyar
~3700 words

The death of Bobby Fischer triggers a string of memories related to a woman's emigration from the former Soviet Union.

The frame of this third-person narrative takes place in the near-present (2008), in which the main character, Marina, still feels the loss of her husband Sergey, who died thirty years earlier. On the way to the house of an elderly cancer patient, Elijah, for whom she is caring, Marina hears the news of Fischer's death. The revelation leads to the story's inner narrative, which unfolds at the time of Fischer's famous match against Spassky (1972). It turns out that Sergey, like many liberal Russian Jews of the time, was a fan of Fischer because he represented the public face of America and "the promise of everything that was good." Sergey decides that if Fischer wins the match then he, Marina, and their son will emigrate from the Soviet Union. As the match proceeds, however, Marina comes to realize that she does not want to leave, and the conflict crystallizes in her as an irrational hatred of Bobby Fischer.

The story does a fine job of conveying how seemingly obscure people and events—in this case Bobby Fischer—can cast long shadows over our lives. In the past, Fischer's defeat of Spassky changed Marina's life forever. In the present, his death revives the memory of her husband and prompts her to reassess her old animosity toward the chess champ. The many ironies—that Marina never wanted to leave the U.S.S.R. in the first place; that her husband died shortly after arriving in America; that Fischer, who represented the hope of many American-loving Russian Jews, became increasingly anti-Semitic and ended up dying in Iceland; that Marina's cancer patient prefers Spassky to Fischer, leading her to defend the man she once loathed—add rich texture to the narrative.

One weakness is that Marina's character feels underdeveloped. The lack is especially noteworthy in contrast to the opening paragraph, in which the main character's sense of loss is described in such vivid, visceral terms:
For a long time after her husband died, Marina used to scream. She'd feel the scream rushing up from her stomach, choking her from the inside, and she'd run out of the room, stumbling over her kids' toys, and hide in the hallway, in the narrow space between the coatrack and the mirror stand, biting down on her right forearm to muffle the sound. After the scream had passed, and she unclenched her teeth, there would be little circular marks on her arm that looked like irregular postage stamps.
Yet the inner narrative does not portray Marina as particularly close to Sergey (on the contrary, there seems to be a good deal of tension between them), and the frame narrative is not long enough to expound on her sense of loss (nor on the precise nature of her relationship with Elijah).

For someone who learned English as an adult, Vapnyar's command of language is astounding. "Fischer vs. Spassky" is a fascinating and poignant story that could be excellent with a bit more character development.


Reader poll: I found "Fischer vs. Spassky" to be ___.

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