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Kristian Fredén, Offret (The Sacrifice)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2005. ISBN: 9100107204

Reviewed by Tom Geddes in SBR 2006:1

This second novel from Kristian Fredén has a literary irony, an understated humour and an extended chess motif providing both plot and metaphor which is inevitably reminiscent of Nabokov’s The Defence. Perhaps a jocular homage is intended in the name of the pseudo-biographer, Vladimir. In a short two-page presentation of himself and his subject, the chess player Leo Gasparian, he comes over as modestly self-deprecating, with a belief in writing as a creative search for the truth rather than simply registering events. In ironical contrast, the character of Gasparian into whose mind he tries to enter through the quasi-autobiographical first-person fiction he creates, is self-obsessed and self-important with a programmatic approach to life and no empathy with others. Gasparian’s increasing preoccupation with chess and distance from human relationships, except for his love for the son living with his divorced wife and his practical interaction with his professional advisers, lead him into a complete distortion of values and almost mental breakdown when he makes an ultimate tactical sacrifice to ensure his chess victory. The parallel to the self-destruction resulting from an inability to deal with reality, depicted in Nabokov’s novel, is obvious. At its simplest level, The Sacrifice is a moral tale: that life and people cannot be treated as chess moves and pawns in a totally egoistic journey through life. Gasparian writes in a sometimes verbose style, with the occasional flourish of an address to the reader, which seems to befit his narcissistic character. The lapses into prolixity of style may be an acknowledgement of the nineteenth century Russian writers he likes to feel affinity with. He is proud of sharing a forename with Tolstoy. He doesn’t mention Dostoevsky, but one wonders too whether the reader should draw any inferences about parallels with Raskolnikov. Recalling significant aspects or episodes of his life as he plays in a chess tournament in Linares, Spain, he recounts his precocious beginnings, his move from Georgia to chess school in Moscow, his first seductions of girls, seen as a repertoire of openings, like chess, and his marriage to Natasha, whom he regards as the “crystallization” of his love, a term he says he borrows from Stendhal, revealing to the reader the self-inflationary values he ascribes to nearly every experience. He recognises that his interest in winning a relationship is on a higher intellectual plane, hence his own literary and chess allusions. He comments on his current games of chess, on the background of world events (the collapse of the USSR and subsequent upheavals in Georgia), and on the similarities between chess and writing, both involving infinite variations (of moves or words). There are no other “characters” in the book, they are merely named ciphers. While this could be seen as a weakness, especially for a British or American readership, it is integral to the import of the book that the other characters should not be fully rounded. It is also part of the literary joke that of the list of characters given at the start, in the mode of a long Russian novel with a complexity of names, patronymics and familiar forms, hardly any of them feature in the narrative except as passing references. This “autobiography” is a monologue of increasing self-obsession. Gasparian’s final sacrifice of his queen in his world championship match leads actually or potentially to other more significant sacrifices, all subordinated to a selfinterest that has become megalomania.

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