Stalemate - Icchokas Meras

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Icchokas Meras

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Title: Stalemate
Author: Icchokas Meras
Genre: Novel
Written: 1963 (Eng. 1980)
Length: 160 pages
Original in: Lithuanian
Availability: Stalemate - US
Stalemate - UK
Stalemate - Canada
Stalemate - India
La partie n'est jamais nulle - France
Remis für Sekunden - Deutschland
Scacco perpetuo - Italia
Tablas por segundos - España
  • Lithuanian title: Lygiosios trunka akimirką
  • Translated by Jonas Zdanys

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Our Assessment:

B+ : effective ghetto-account

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 17/12/2001 Ulrich M. Schmid

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The complete review's Review:

       Stalemate is set in Vilnius during World War II, the action centred in the ghetto in which the local Jewish population was isolated. The storyline that frames the book is a chess match between the Nazi Commandant Schoger, who oversees the ghetto with an iron hand, and a teenage prodigy, Isaac Lipman. While the stakes are made clear from early on, the scene in which the match is agreed upon is only recounted fairly late in the novel.
       The match comes about because Schoger wants to take the last of the children from the ghetto, and Abraham Lipman pleads with him to let them remain. Schoger makes a cruel offer, challenging Abraham to force his son to take part in a single, highest-stake contest:

     "We'll make this agreement, Lipman. Listen well. Listen very well. If he wins, the children will remain in the ghetto, but I will shoot your son. Myself. If he loses, he'll remain alive, and I'll order the children taken away tomorrow. Do you understand ?"
       It's an awful choice, but at least it's a choice -- and there is the one possibility of escaping either fate: if the match ends in a stalemate. Schoger casually ups the ante, too, during the game: "What happens to you, happens to your girl. Right ?", suggesting he doesn't feel entirely bound by the conditions, but the general feeling is that he will abide by the outcome.
       The chess-game slowly unfolds -- over several days -- with Schoger drawing out the tension, but Meras makes this a larger account of ghetto-life by weaving other episodes and events into the story.
       Isaac, for example, falls in love -- and gets yet another experience in the complete and arbitrary power of the Nazis as he wonders (and learns): "Who can forbid flowers ?" (He tries to bring his girl, Esther, flowers, but they are forbidden in the ghetto, and he gets whipped each time he is discovered with some; nevertheless, Nazi control is not absolute and he is eventually able to present her with a bouquet.)
       There is also a resistance movement in the ghetto, but Schoger remains in almost complete control. There is some limited freedom of movement beyond the ghetto too -- indeed, escape is also possible, but not true escape -- and at one point Isaac and Esther sneak out to search for the boy Janek, who may have escaped from one of the convoys; later the story is told from Janek's point of view.
       Meras' varied perspectives and small episodes are effectively contrasted with the chess-game, as life in the ghetto is much like that decisive match, with elements of both careful planning ahead in order to survive, but also always the potential of a surprise-move from your opponent to completely change the fundamentals.
       There is only limited possibility of resistance. The individual can escape, but the community can be punished -- that is part of Schoger's great power, and one he knows how to wield very effectively. Nevertheless, Meras leaves the ghetto-individuals with powers of their own: they can not be entirely subjugated by the oppressors. The chess match itself comes down to a choice between two moves, a choice resting with Isaac: the decision -- and with it, the power -- is his. Meras goes further, with Schoger's literally crushing defeat. It is a moment of triumph, and Meras leaves it at that; implicit is also that it is only a reprieve and, ultimately, a defeat for the community -- but at least they have that moment.
       An effective and creative account of ghetto-life, Stalemate is a fairly compelling and powerful novel, with Meras particularly adept at conveying the power-structures in these extreme conditions, and the games people played to survive and to destroy.

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Stalemate: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Lithuanian author Icchokas Meras (1934-2014) moved to Israel in 1972.

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