IV The Third Player
“So, Watson,” continued Holmes with a chuckle,
“is it not amusing how it sometimes happens
that to know the past, one must first
know the future?”
“It’s a real game,” said Munoz. “A bit strange, but perfectly logical. Black was the last to move.”
“Are you sure?” asked Julia.
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“How do you know?”
“I just do.”
They were in Julia’s studio, in front of the picture, which was lit by every available light in the room. Cesar was on the sofa, Julia was sitting at the table and Munoz was standing before the Van Huys, perplexed.
“Would you like a drink?”
“No. I don’t smoke.”
A certain embarrassment floated in the air. Munoz seemed ill at ease. He was wearing a crumpled raincoat and had kept it firmly buttoned up, as if reserving the right to leave at any moment, with no explanation. He remained shy, mistrustful. It hadn’t been easy to get him there. When Cesar and Julia first put their proposition to him, the expression on Munoz’s face had required no commentary; he took them for a couple of lunatics. Then he became suspicious, defensive. They must forgive him if he seemed rude, but this whole story about medieval murders and a game of chess painted in a picture was just too bizarre.
And even if what they told him were true, he didn’t really understand what it could possibly have to do with him. After all, he kept saying, as if that way he could establish the necessary social distinctions, he was just an accounts clerk, an office worker.
“But you play chess,” Cesar had said with his most seductive smile. They had gone across the street to a bar and were sitting next to a fruit machine that deafened them at intervals with its monotonous jingle designed to ensnare the unwary.
“So?” There was no defiance in the reply, only indifference. “So do a lot of other people. And I don’t see why I…”
“They say you’re the best.”
Munoz gave Cesar an indefinable look. Julia interpreted it as meaning: Perhaps I am, but that has nothing to do with it. Being the best has no meaning. You could be the best, just as you could be blond or have flat feet, without feeling obliged to prove it to everyone.
“If that were true,” he replied after a moment, “I’d go in for tournaments and such. But I don’t.”
Munoz glanced at his empty coffee cup and then shrugged his shoulders.
“Because I don’t. You have to want to do that kind of thing. I mean, you have to want to win…” He looked at them as if he wasn’t sure whether or not they would understand what he said. “And I don’t care whether I win or not.”
“So, you’re a theoretician,” remarked Cesar, with a gravity in which Julia detected a hidden irony.
Munoz held his gaze thoughtfully, as if struggling to find a suitable reply.
“Perhaps,” he said at last. “That’s why I don’t think I would be much use to you.”
He started to get up, but was prevented by Julia’s reaching out her hand and placing it on his arm. It was only the briefest of contacts, but it was invested with anxious urgency. Later, when they were alone, Cesar, arching one eyebrow, described it as “supremely feminine, darling; the damsel asking for help, though without overstating her case, and ensuring that the bird doesn’t fly the coop.” He himself could not have done it better; except that he would have uttered a little cry of alarm not at all appropriate in the circumstances. As it was, Munoz had looked down fleetingly at the hand Julia was already withdrawing and let his eyes slide over the table and come to rest on his own hands, with their rather grubby nails, which lay quite still on either side of his cup.
“We need your help,” Julia said in a low voice. “It really is important, I can assure you, important to me and to my work.”
Munoz put his head on one side and looked at her, or, rather, at her chin, as if he feared that looking directly into her eyes would establish between them a commitment he was not prepared to make.
“I really don’t think it would interest me,” he said at last.
Julia leaned over the table.
“Think of it as a game that would be different from any game you’ve played before. A game which, this time, would be worth winning.”
Cesar was growing impatient.
“I must admit, my friend,” he said, his irritation evident in the way he kept twisting the topaz ring on his right hand, “that I find your peculiar apathy incomprehensible. Why do you bother to play chess?”
Munoz thought for a while. Then he looked straight into Cesar’s eyes.
“Perhaps,” he said calmly, “for the same reason that you are homosexual.”
It was as if an icy blast had blown over them. Julia hurriedly lit a cigarette, terrified by the tactless remark, which Munoz had uttered unemphatically and without a hint of aggression. On the contrary, he was looking at Cesar with a kind of polite attention, as if, in the course of a perfectly normal dialogue, he was awaiting the response of a worthy conversational partner. There was a complete lack of malice in that look, Julia thought, even a certain innocence, like that of a tourist who, with the ineptness of the foreigner, unwittingly offends against local custom.
Cesar merely leaned a little towards Munoz, with an interested look on his face and an amused smile on his pale, thin lips.
“My dear friend,” he said gently, “from your tone of voice and the expression on your face, I deduce that you have nothing against what your humble servant here might or might not represent. Just as, I imagine, you had nothing against the white king or against the man you were playing a short while ago at the club. Isn’t that right?”
“More or less.”
Cesar turned to Julia.
“You see, Princess? Everything’s fine; no need to be alarmed. This charming man merely wished to explain that the reason he plays chess is because the game is part of his very nature.” Cesar’s smile grew brighter, kinder. “Something deeply bound up with problems, combinations, illusions. What’s a prosaic checkmate beside all that?” He sat back in his chair and looked at Munoz, who was still observing him impassively. “I’ll tell you: Nothing.” He held out his hands palms uppermost, as if inviting Julia and Munoz to verify the truth of his words. “Isn’t that so, my friend? Just a desolate full stop, an enforced return to reality.” He wrinkled his nose. “To real life, to the routine of the commonplace and the everyday.”
Munoz remained silent for a while.
“It’s funny,” he said at last, screwing up his eyes in a suggestion of a smile that never quite reached his lips, “but I suppose that’s exactly what it is. It’s just that I’ve never heard anyone put it into words before.”
“Well, I’m delighted to be the one to initiate you into the matter,” replied Cesar, not without a certain malice, and with a little laugh that earned him a reproving look from Julia.
Munoz seemed somewhat disconcerted.
“Do you play chess too?”
Cesar gave a short laugh. He was being unbearably theatrical today, thought Julia, as he always was when he had the right audience.
“Like everyone else, I know how to move the pieces. But as a game I can take it or leave it.” He gave Munoz a look of sudden seriousness. “What I play at, my esteemed friend, and it is no small thing, is getting out of the everyday checkmates of life.” He gestured towards both of them with one delicate hand. “And like you, like everyone, I have my own little ways of getting by.”
Still confused, Munoz glanced at the door. The lighting in the bar made him look weary and accentuated the shadows under his eyes, making them appear even more deeply sunk. With his large ears, sticking out above the collar of his raincoat, his big nose and his gaunt face, he looked like a thin, ungainly dog.
“All right,” he said. “Let’s go and see this painting.”
And there they were, awaiting Munoz’s verdict. His initial discomfort at finding himself in a strange place in the presence of a pretty young woman, an antiquarian of uncertain proclivities and a painting of equivocal appearance seemed to disappear as the game of chess in the painting took hold of his attention. For the first few minutes he had studied it without saying a word, standing quite still, his hands behind his back, in exactly the same posture, thought Julia, as that adopted by the spectators at the Capablanca Club as they watched other people’s games unfold. And, of course, that was exactly what he was doing. After some time, during which no one said a word, he asked for paper and pencil, and after a further brief period of reflection, he leaned on the table in order to make a sketch of the game, looking up every now and then to check the position of the pieces.
“What century was it painted in?” he asked. He’d drawn a square on which he’d traced a grid of vertical and horizontal lines that divided it into sixty-four smaller squares.
“Late fifteenth,” said Julia.
“Knowing the date is important. By then, the rules of chess were almost the same as they are now. But up to that point, the way some of the pieces could be moved was different. The queen, for example, used to be able to move only diagonally into a neighbouring square, and then, later on, to jump three squares. And castling was unknown until the Middle Ages.” He left his drawing for a moment to take a closer look at the painting. “If the person who worked out the game did so using modern rules, we might be able to resolve it. If not, it will be difficult.”
“It was painted in what is now Belgium,” Cesar said, “around 1470.”
“I don’t think there’ll be any problem then. Nothing insoluble at any rate.”
Julia got up from the table and went over to the painting to look at the position of the painted chess pieces.
“How do you know that Black has just moved?”
“It’s obvious. You just have to look at the position of the pieces. Or at the players.” Munoz pointed to Ferdinand of Ostenburg. “The one on the left, the one playing Black and looking towards the painter, or towards us, is more relaxed, even distracted, as if his attention were directed at the spectators rather than at the board.” He pointed to Roger de Arras. “The other man, however, is studying a move his opponent has just made. Can’t you see the concentration on his face?” He returned to his sketch. “There’s another way of checking it; in fact, it’s the method to use. It’s called retrograde analysis.”
“What kind of analysis?”
“Retrograde. It involves taking a certain position on the board as your starting point and then reconstructing the game backwards in order to work out how it got to that position. A sort of chess in reverse, if you like. It’s all done by induction. You begin with the end result and work backwards to the causes.”
“Like Sherlock Holmes,” remarked Cesar, visibly interested.
“Something like that.”
Julia had turned towards Munoz, impressed. Until now, chess had been only a game for her, a game with rules marginally more complex than those for Parcheesi or dominoes and requiring greater concentration and intelligence. But from Munoz’s reaction to the Van Huys it was evident that the planes represented in the painting: mirror, room, window – the backdrop to the moment recorded there by Pieter Van Huys, a space in which she herself had experienced the dizzying effects of the optical illusion created by the artist’s skill – presented no difficulties at all for Munoz, who knew almost nothing about the picture and hardly anything about its disquieting connotations. For him, it was a familiar space beyond time and personalities. It was a space in which he appeared to move easily, as if, by making everything else an abstraction, he was able at once to take in the position of the pieces and integrate himself into the game. The more he concentrated on The Game of Chess, the more he shed the perplexity, reticence and awkwardness he’d shown in the bar, and revealed himself as the confident, impassive player she had thought him to be when she saw him at the Capablanca Club. It was as if this shy, grey, hesitant man needed only the presence of a chessboard to recover his confidence and self-assurance.
“You mean it’s possible to play the game of chess in the painting backwards, right back to the beginning?”
Munoz made one of his noncommittal gestures.
“I don’t know about going right back to the beginning… but I imagine we could reconstruct a fair number of moves.” He looked at the painting again as if he’d just seen it in a new light and, addressing Cesar, he said: “I suppose that was exactly what the painter intended.”
“That’s what you have to find out,” replied Cesar. “The tricky question is: Who took the knight?”
“You mean the white knight,” said Munoz. “There’s only one left on the board.”
“Elementary,” said Cesar, adding with a smile, “my dear Watson.”
Munoz ignored this; humour was evidently not one of his strong points. Julia went over to the sofa and sat down next to Cesar, as enthralled as a little girl watching some thrilling performance. Munoz had finished his sketch now and he showed it to them.
“This,” he explained, “is the position of the pieces as they are in the painting.”
“As you see, I’ve given each square a coordinate, to make locating the pieces easier for you. So, seen from the perspective of the player on the right…”
“Roger de Arras,” said Julia.
“Yes, Roger de Arras. Looking at the board from that position, we number the squares on the vertical from one to eight and assign a letter, from a to h, to each of the squares on the horizontal,” he said, pointing to them with his pencil. “There are other more technical classifications, but that might just confuse you.”
“And each symbol corresponds to a chess piece?”
“That’s right. They’re conventional symbols, some black, some white. I’ve made a note, below, of what each one means.”
“That way, even if you know very little about chess, it’s easy to see that the black king, for example, is on square a4, and that on fl, for example, there’s a white bishop. Do you understand?”
Munoz went on to show them some further symbols he’d drawn.
“Now, we’ve looked at the pieces actually on the board, but in order to analyse the game, it’s essential to know which ones are off the board too, the pieces that have already been taken.” He looked at the picture. “What’s the player on the left called?”
“Ferdinand of Ostenburg.”
“Well, Ferdinand of Ostenburg, who’s playing Black, has taken the following white pieces.”
“That is: a bishop, a knight and two pawns. For his part, Roger de Arras has taken the following pieces from his rival.”
“That’s four pawns, one rook and a bishop.” Munoz looked thoughtfully at the sketch. “When you look at the game from that point of view, White would seem to have an advantage over his opponent. But, if I’ve understood correctly, that’s not the problem. The question is who took the white knight. Clearly it must have been one of the black pieces, which may seem to be stating the obvious, but we have to go step by step here, right from the beginning.” He looked at Cesar and Julia as if what he’d said required some apology. “There’s nothing more misleading than an obvious fact. That’s a principle from logic which is equally applicable in chess: what seems obvious doesn’t always turn out to be what really happened or what is about to happen. To sum up: this means that we have to find out which of the black pieces on or off the board took the white knight.”
“Or killed him,” added Julia.
Munoz made an evasive gesture.
“That’s not my business, Senorita.”
“You can call me Julia, if you like.”
“Well, Julia, it’s still not my business.” He looked hard at the paper containing the sketch as if written on it was the script of a conversation of which he’d lost the thread. “I believe you brought me here to tell you which chess piece took the white knight. If by finding that out, the two of you are able to draw certain conclusions or decipher some hieroglyph, that’s fine.” He looked at them with more assurance, as often happened when he’d concluded a technical exegesis, as if he drew some measure of confidence from his knowledge. “That’s up to you. I’m just a chess player.”
Cesar found this reasonable.
“I can’t see anything wrong with that,” he said, looking at Julia. “He makes the moves and we interpret them. Teamwork, my dear.”
Julia was too interested in the whole problem to bother with details about method. She put her hand on Cesar’s, feeling the soft, regular beat of his pulse beneath the skin on his wrist.
“How long will it take to solve?”
Munoz scratched his ill-shaven chin.
“I don’t know. Half an hour, a week. It depends.”
“On a lot of things. On how well I manage to concentrate. And on luck.”
“Can you start right now?”
“Of course. I already have.”
“Go on then.”
But at that moment the phone rang, and the game of chess had to be postponed.