Lara Vapnyar: “Fischer vs. Spassky”
11/08/2012 § 1 Comment
Originally published in The New Yorker, 10/8/12
Sports films do it all the time, from Rocky III to Miracle, in which the players are merely stand-ins for the larger conflicts they represent. Of course, such conflation and almost mythic importance often reduces the characters to nothing more than ideas, straw men in a compelling but ultimately empty yarn. Not so with Vapnyar’s piece, which pulls back from the ways in which the 1972 seven-game series between chessmasters Fischer and Spassky commented on tensions between the US and USSR. Instead, she looks at the hopes and dreams of a troubled Russian family living in the small village of Oselki: Marina, her husband Sergey, and their five-year-old son, Sasha. “If Fischer won, they would apply for exit visas,” says Sergey, staking their future on the risky maneuvers of the brash American. “If he lost, they would stay in the Soviet Union.”
However, Vapnyar begins the story some thirty-odd years later, so as to remove any elements of surprise. Just as we know that Fischer has defeated Spassky, so too do we know that Marina’s family has managed to emigrate to the United States, although Sergey has tragically died along the way. This choice serves a second purpose, too, which is to shift the actual surprise: the story isn’t really about Fischer and Spassky — they’re mere ideas — but rather about the influence such grand ideas can have on, to be honest, ordinary people.
At the start of the chess match — and it’s important that it lasts more than a week, with each game stretching out the tension of those created, longed-for stakes — Marina dreams of escaping: “She felt as if she were boxed up in some bleak, inferior world, while other people were outside enjoying bright and wonderful lives.” There’s a whole list of colors and that most-green envy that she feels every time she looks at her decidedly unpretty white cotton underpants and fantasizes of her husband taking in the cold, strong soil: “When she was pregnant with Sasha, she’d had a weird craving to eat soil. What she craved now was for Sergey to appear in the garden and fuck her right there, pressing her naked body into the soil.” This shift is subtle, for Marina slowly develops a connection to her land, her country. Yes, things aren’t *beautiful*, but they are tolerable, and eventually acceptable in their own special way. (Nor is this a mental mistake, some sort of coping mechanism. Not for nothing has Vapnyar decided to make Marina an educated albeit unemployed student of behavioral psychology.)
For Sergey, however, things intensify in the opposite direction. “Ever since he was a child he’d experienced the lack of freedom as a physical thing. He liked to keep the frames of his glasses a little loose, to avoid even the slightest pressure on his temples. He never wore glvoes, not even in the dead of winter, because they stifled his fingers.” Marina may be rediscovering a love for her homeland, able to escape into her housework and her private retreat in the outhouse, where she reads the scraps of Pravda that they’re using as toilet paper, but for Sergey, a thinking man who stretches himself thin with long commutes to work in which he can do nothing but be consumed by his stifling thoughts, there is no escape. No wonder he approves of the gutsy Queen’s Gambit or Tartakower defense, no shock that he dies of a heart attack one year after they emigrate to the US, a man without a cause.
The one issue with Vapnyar’s story is with the wrapping: Marina is reminded of these events while spending time with a man named Elijah. We don’t know much about him, save that he is dying of cancer and well-off enough to afford a night aide. But is that what Marina is? Has she not become a graduate scholar (essentially the reason they’d originally discussed leaving the opportunity-less Russia)? The final line implies that although she’d originally hated Fisher and the emigration he wound up representing, she’d come around . . . but then again, everything we know about this strong woman implies that she can make the best of any situation. At least in those inspirational sports movies, we know who wins, and what that represents. It’s hard to say what sort of conclusion Vapnyar wants us to reach.