Georgi Etimov was born in 1963 in Sofia and graduated in civil engineering, a vocation that runs in the family: both his father and grandfather were engineers. He worked as one for a good part of his life, and is married to an architect. Given this background, you would be correct in thinking he would have a strong opinion on the recent construction boom. “Things are not just black and white. There are contractors who go for quality in everything they do, and there are of course the others who make all kinds of compromises. What is worse is that poor quality is tolerated, or at least not penalised,” Etimov says.
When he's not supervising building projects, Georgi Etimov stays at home writing. Entire years of his life have been dedicated to either one or the other. “I cannot do both at the same time, so I end up either doing my engineering job, or I swap it for writing.” And 2007, just like the better half of 2006, has been designated for writing.
You first published a novel in 2001.
I started writing much earlier, but prior to 1989 I did not even want to try and have something published, because back in those times you couldn't write anything properly, or if you did, the consequences could have been rather distressing.
You are an ardent chess player. Was Chess Short Stories meant for players of the game?
I wanted to write a book where individual short stories would share a common topic that was not too mundane. Of course, you can read them even if you know nothing about chess, and by the end of the book you might be familiar with most of the pieces. By an ironic quirk of fate, shortly after the book was published a series of chess triumphs took place: Antoaneta Stefanova won the FIDE Women's World Championship (in 2004) and later on Veselin Topalov became world champion (in 2005).
What inspired your latest novel, Franz and the Others? What is it about?
The absurdist society that we live in. We all witness different crimes that go unpunished. If 600 kg of amphetamine is busted, it eventually turns out it was for someone's personal use, or if an old building in Sofia collapses, killing two passers-by, the wind and the rain are to blame. Not to mention the crimes of the Communist regime. These cannot but poison the air we breathe. The story in the novel and the main character, a policeman, are fictional, but I have mocked the way the police, the investigation office and the judiciary operate.
Can Bulgaria's EU membership change things?
There is hope that control and responsibility can eventually be imported from abroad as apparently these are non-existent among the Bulgarian political establishment.
The season had started only a few weeks before and you could still hire a beach umbrella to provide you with some degree of privacy, without bothersome neighbours crowding you on all sides. You could do so if you wished, that is, for many holiday-makers preferred to economise on such expenditures and, instead of settling down obediently under the blue-and-white sunshades of the lifeguard-protected area, opted for the rocky end of the bay, where they now formed a rather densely populated camp.
The elderly man, tall and bony, clad in ancient knee-length trousers of waterproof cloth, a narrow-collared linen shirt and a panama hat, paused on the last landing of the concrete steps leading down to the beach, slowly removed his sandals and, with obvious distaste, took in the surroundings.
The central, more orderly part of the beach was apparently not to his liking and he gradually shifted his gaze to the livelier, noisier multitude in the distance. Judging by the expression on his face, this place must have aroused some doubt, too: the overexcited screams of the children running to and fro, coupled with the piercing shrieks of their mothers, initially made him purse his lips in disapproval, but then he seemed to notice something that tipped the scales of judgment and he started striding purposefully along the sand.
At the very end of the beach, just before the rugged promontory began, several long, craggy rocks rose languorously above the water, resting their green-specked snouts onto the sand where, together with a fanlike spread of seaweed deposit, they formed a miniature enclosure that in rougher weather would presumably be engulfed by the sea, but at present offered a small spot of damp seclusion.
Upon reaching this destination, the man paid heed neither to the swarms of tiny flies dancing on the garlands of algae, nor to the thick, barely quivering yellowish sludge just a few feet away from where he stood. His face expressionless, he took out a folded white bed sheet, kicked aside a few large seashells and a whole cluster of black, as yet unopened clams, and proceeded to smooth out the sand with his right foot. Then he took off his clothes and put them away in his knitted carryall which, lying down, he tucked under his head like a pillow.
His arrival must have been registered, in one way or another, by most of the other tourists in the vicinity, but it was a single pair of eyes that had carefully followed each and every one of his actions. These belonged to Masha Kuntz, a large elderly Russian lady with a redtinted, Corinthian capital of a hairdo, a beak-like nose and a powerful pair of calves, who never missed a day on the beach, come rain or shine. Masha – known to most not by her name, but as the Champion's Grandma – was not deceived by the man's trim figure and brisk step; even his thick, short-cropped silvery hair did not prevent her from judging that he was older than he looked, and would probably never see 70 again. Naturally, while gauging his age she had not yet asked herself whether he might prove to be the long-awaited big catch: she knew from experience that conjectures were worthless, for so far the perfect targets had not proved to share any specific physical characteristics. Unfortunately, this year she had not yet pulled in a single decent fish, but if the previous summer was anything to go by, then in respect of age, at least, there were no limits – no upper limits, that is…
The child – or the Champion, as the waiters at the beachside cafes called him – had been given permission to go for a dip in the sea, so Masha waited patiently until he returned, made him sit in the sun for some time and, only when she had decided that he was acceptably dry, pointed out with her finger where his next foray was to be.
The man lay immobile on his back, his chest rising and falling with rhythmic regularity. The boy, holding his hand in front of his mouth as he had been taught, cleared his throat a few times; then, forcing himself to tramp through the slimy seaweed, he slowly circled the prone figure, approaching it from different angles – but still the man did not react.
“Do you play chess?” The boy repeated his question without much hope, wondering if there was any chance that the guy didn't speak Russian. His grandmother insisted he'd never have any problems making himself understood in this country, where Russian had until recently been a compulsory school subject; both the previous summer and the present one seemed to confirm this claim of hers, but anything was possible, after all – with two opposite-coloured bishops, sometimes even two pawns were of little help. Thank God, this time the old man opened his eyes and, turning his head around, finally noticed his presence.
The description had been quite accurate, it must be admitted, for he recognised the boy immediately. Not that there was anything extraordinary about the way he looked – a child like just any child, about six or seven years old, thin, blond, and blue-eyed. Anyway, the man thought wryly, it didn't really matter what the boy looked like, for the squares on the wooden board and the eloquent hand gestures made it perfectly clear what this was all about. He remained silent for some time, feigning a certain hesitation, but in the end gave an indefinite nod and, to confirm his consent, casually brushed a few seashells aside and patted the sand invitingly.
This was precisely what the boy had been waiting for: he instantly threw down his towel, sat down on it and shook the pieces out of the chessboard. In the process, the white queen got entangled in some nasty-looking plants and he once again wondered how, of all possible locations, someone could choose this stinking place to sit. Maybe the man wasn't quite in his right mind. The boy was used to strangers being much more talkative, usually flooding him with questions from the very start – what was his name, how old was he, where did he live and so on: the same stupid questions every time, but at least those people opened their mouths, while this guy kept dumb, which was really unnerving. As ritual dictated, he hid a pawn of different colour in each of his small palms, but his opponent surprised him yet again by making no comment and silently arranging the black pieces in front of himself.
The boy did not stop to ponder this, for they had now reached the first key point. He produced a one-lev coin and placed it beside his rook.
The man raised his eyebrows in surprise, then gave a small laugh and said in Bulgarian, “You don't need to pay me. It's good that you like chess.”
This guy is really crazy! How could he think I'd pay him anything? The boy was furious, but unfortunately manners had to be observed, so he shook his head, picked up the coin, then slowly put it back on the board, meanwhile explaining that the man should do the same – wager a lev.
“It's quite simple! The winner takes the stake.”
“Takes the stake,” the stranger repeated. “So you want to play for money? How odd…”
Rubbish! There's nothing odd about it, but you don't know that because you're new to this. Ask anyone around – they all know me. See how many people are watching us?
That was certainly true. At least 10 of the other beachgoers were now studying the boy's new victim, their faces wearing more or less the same expression, an eager mixture of amusement and curiosity. They had each lost relatively small sums to the child, but, probably to soothe their stung pride, had proclaimed him a wunderkind, a genius, Tal's nephew, the new Fischer…or whatever famous chess player they could think of. The wooden board and the kid-sized towel had already travelled the whole beach, and there had been an even greater number of incredulous losers than were currently present: with the passage of time, many of them had packed up and left for home, carrying the memory of Grandma and the Champion with them.
It was Masha Kuntz who kept track of the statistics: on average, her grandson played 25 people a day, and the winnings varied from 50 to 70 leva. Altogether not much: so far it had helped cover only the rent and a few meals, never mind the drinks… Last year the first scoop had come upon their very arrival.
Meanwhile, the game between the boy and the man was quickly coming to its end. The opening had resembled the Old Indian Defence, but after the first six or seven moves (played more or less correctly), Tal's nephew, misled by the space he had conquered, got mired in a foolish attack in which he first lost his knight and then three pawns. In the hopeless ending, during a swift exchange, he – seemingly without noticing – knocked down the enemy bishop, which stood on the back rank on his side. Even that did not help – the man reached out and, making no comment whatsoever, put the piece back in place.
Finally, the man picked up the two-figure banknote that, for lack of change, he had wagered in the beginning, and with an air of reproach tossed the one-lev coin back to the boy, signalling that he considered the whole matter over.
“One more?” the Champion asked, with an urgent tone to his voice. He did happen to lose sometimes, but then he always managed to get his own back. He just hadn't been careful enough this time, he thought.
“You're still too young, but if you persist, you'll learn.”
“I've got two coaches – Grandmasters!” the boy said, and repeated his question. “One more game?”
“Alright, let's play a Spanish Game. Open games are easier.”
“All games are easy if you're careful,” the boy declared importantly, meanwhile producing another lev coin. Making quite a show of it, he placed the two coins, one on top of the other, next to the white rook.
“Are you starting that nonsense again?” asked the man with displeasure. “You're so young and all you can think about is money.”
“You're afraid to play,” the boy taunted. “That must be it – you're afraid to play another one!”
He didn't really have any choice. On the one hand, his Grandma didn't allow quick withdrawals, and on the other – suddenly, the most important thing of all flashed through his mind. You must always look out, and always be prepared, for something like this happening!
Last year the Shark Alternative had been put to use more than once, but it had been a long time since then, and during the winter they'd practiced it so many times that theoretical repetition had gradually made practical realisation seem like an abstraction. Also, he had to be quite sure that the man was truly good and wouldn't back out at the last minute.
Hmm…Crazy or not, this guy really was something else. Apparently, he didn't need to stop and think at all. Most others in his place would make faces, sigh, or offer inane remarks – Wow! Look at that! Well done! and similar stuff.
The boy resolved that he would be even more aggressive, crush the old man like a fly and go and get himself an ice-cream. There were clouds gathering in the sky above the sea, so maybe the sun would hide and the stupid tourists would clear off the beach. And then… A break!
“Three more moves and it's mate, my boy,” the man announced unexpectedly, lighting a cigarette. “When you attack, you should also pay attention to your defence.”
A sudden panic seized him and he stared at the board. At first he did not notice the trap; when he did, rage welled up inside him and the blood rushed into his head. The wretched old man was right: he had tricked him with his previous move. He was sacrificing his queen, but her capture did indeed lead to checkmate. If the boy declined the sacrifice, then…then he'd lose his rook and his knight, and…it was mate again! Damn!
“I have to go to the toilet,” he said, getting up quickly. “I'll be straight back.”
That was the prearranged code. His grandmother, who had been following everything from afar, got the message immediately and, looking tense, jumped up to her feet.
“I need to pee! I need to pee!” Hunched over, hands clutching the front of his swimming trunks, the boy rushed past her. Translated, his words meant: He's very good! I've got to do the trick now, there's no time left!
Upon his return, he found that he had guessed right. The old man was not paying any attention to the chessboard – he wasn't even looking at it – but was instead absentmindedly poking around in the sand with a thin stick. Tal's nephew captured his opponent's queen and, with a careless motion, pushed the white king into the neighbouring square. Now the most important figure of all occupied an indeterminate position, but if you took it to be in its new place, then the checkmate combination fell through, for the king would be under threat of discovered check.
The old man turned and, with automaton-like movements, restored the original order of the pieces. Then he reached to play the move he had previously planned.
“You can't do that!” the boy yelled. “Play the king!”
His opponent shrugged his shoulders in bewilderment, apparently not comprehending the reason for this outburst.
“You should have said you're adjusting ,” the Champion went on didactically. “If you touch a piece, you must play it.”
“Oh yes, piece touché,” the man agreed. “What's the problem?”
“Play the king! You're not playing fair!” the child yelled again, much louder this time. And again, “You're not playing fair!”
It was then that Masha Kuntz finally appeared on the scene. She stood legs apart and arms folded, her large frame throwing a dark shadow upon the chess players. The splashing of the sea waves drowned her words, but the tension between the two opponents was so tangible that several other beach visitors rose to their feet and slowly headed in their direction.
“He's cheating! He's cheating, Grandma!” the boy shouted. “He's not playing fair!”
One look at the board was enough. A former professional player herself, Masha had undertaken the responsibility of coaching her grandson and she knew that his skills were approximately those of a Class II player, but at times he could play almost like a Candidate Master. To force him into such a trap, the old man may well have played professionally in his past. If that was so, then all the better – the wound to his pride would be even more severe. Elementary psychology, true, but it was the key to the whole thing. With very few exceptions, keen chess players reacted extremely painfully when their skills were openly questioned. Even when the superiority of an opponent's talents was quite obvious, even when it was perfectly clear that he stood ranks above, the humiliated player would, as if hypnotised, demand a second chance, and like a caged animal hurl himself over and over against the steel bars, blindly hoping to find a big enough opening.
The boy was still playing his part but he was also, with increasing frequency, throwing appealing looks in her direction. And rightly so – she should have taken charge long ago, only there was something in the vibes she got from the stranger that had so far stopped her, and his total silence now did nothing to heighten the emotional charge of the situation. It was as if he was not there at all, but drifting somewhere towards the horizon.
“It's a shame to cheat a child,” she said. “It's just not decent.” Except for a very slight head movement, the man did not stir. He went on sitting with his back to her, as if the whole scene had nothing to do with him.
“Did it ever occur to you that you might damage his psyche this way? He's preparing for a national tournament, you know.”
“He cheated, he cheated!” Screeched the boy, parrot-like.
“He'll never really get anywhere. You have to love the game to do so,” the man said, adding thoughtfully. “Of course, it's not the child's fault.”
“You're being insolent! It's easy to demonstrate superiority over a weaker opponent. Real men don't measure their strength with children!”
“What, with women, then?” the stranger asked amusedly. “Are you saying I should play with you?”
“No, not with me. But there's somebody else here you can play with!”
“And who might that be?”
“You'll see. Come with me…If you have the courage, that is.”
He felt immensely relieved that he would finally leave this horrible place. He could not stand the sea, and after the tragic events of…No; now was not the time for painful memories.
While he was getting dressed, he wondered if he was giving himself away by agreeing so quickly. It must look suspicious – after all, he had spent less than an hour on the beach. Regrettably, he had no idea how such scenes were actually played. Probably you waited for a crowd of onlookers to gather, then exchanged a few verbal challenges… It might have seemed more natural if he had also raised his voice or even revealed that the little squirt was pushing the pieces about and changing their places in the cheapest possible fashion…
The café was virtually empty, but the man waiting for them was seated at the most secluded table, furthest away from the bar. Though probably in his forties, he looked older, stooped and somewhat weary, the dark circles under his eyes so big that they could not have been caused by one sleepless night alone. In spite of the heat, he wore black jeans and a baggy sweatshirt with the suggestive inscription WRONG on its front. His greasy hair, so pale blond as to be almost colourless, was half-covered by a baseball cap.
“This is Sasha Kuntz,” said Masha in introduction.
Who'd had enormous potential once, but had early in his life wasted it all by drinking around the clock, added the elderly man in his thoughts. He waited for a moment or two to make sure that he had not been recognised, then smiled and gave the first name that came to his mind. They had in fact met only once, about 20 years ago, at a second-rate tournament in Skopje. What irony: it was the last official event either of them had taken part in, but while for him third place had meant a great success, a glorious swan song, in Sasha Kuntz's case the tournament had been his funeral. Poor Kuntz must already have been sinking fast at the time, for, as witnessed by the newspaper cuttings the old man still kept at home, he had come last with a mere 1.5 points. A terrible downfall for a player who had achieved Grandmaster rating at 18 and had made it to an interzonal tournament.
The child called Kuntz Daddy, but even without hearing this form of address you could easily see that they were father and son. The elderly man found himself mentally rewinding the tape of time: it was not hard to picture little Sasha touring some beach 30 or so years ago with a chessboard under his arm. Perhaps that was when and how all the trouble had started…
“I don't like people insulting my boy,” the Russian said and, obviously finding the words lacking in strength, added, “I don't like that at all. Do you understand, old man?”
There followed something like a groping in the dark, an exchange of semi-taunting remarks, until Sasha finally got down to business, taking out a hundred-dollar bill and looking questioningly at the other man.
The latter knew this was the most delicate moment of all: he had judged it to be so when he'd first heard the story of last year's happenings or, to be more precise, a little bit later, when he'd finally made up his mind to try his luck. In some other country, maybe, it was quite the normal thing, but in this one it would seem amazing, shocking even, for an elderly, plainly ordinary man to have so much money on him – and to carry it to the beach, at that! To not only have one hundred dollars at hand, but also to be willing to wager it in a game with a stranger…
“My wallet's in my room,” he said. “It's nearby.”
“Fine, we'll play there then,” Kuntz decided. “Do you have a chess set?”
He did not, of course.
They seated themselves in the small restaurant on the ground floor of his hotel. A surprisingly well-muscled waiter brought the vodka Kuntz had ordered.
“You're really strange, old man. I almost feel sorry that I'll have to take your money. I just don't get it why you want to play one game only, and why you're raising the stake to one hundred and 20 dollars exactly. I've never heard of such a thing …Tell me, why the extra 20, what's that for?” Kuntz asked while they were arranging the pieces. The elderly man chose to answer only the first question. “My train leaves in two hours.”
“You're leaving in two hours? Hey – you must be really sure of yourself!”
The white pieces made his job much easier. He had no other information, but from the Skopje tournament, at least, he knew that the Russian always played the Queen's Gambit in one and the same way.
He surprised Kuntz early on in the game, at his fourth move, by bringing his Queen forward to the g-file. Most theoreticians would probably have questioned this action, but Kuntz seemed to be playing mechanically and failed to make a timely c5 move, preferring instead to capture the pawn. Further errors followed which, though small, piled up on one another fast, and soon his rook had nowhere to retreat.
Losing the exchange , although at this point he still had enough chances left, evidently upset him; he cursed, furrowed his eyebrows, and gave his opponent a long, distrustful look.
“You don't seem to be an amateur at all, old man.”
The pieces gradually decreased in number, and since there was nothing to be gained directly from keeping the material advantage, the elderly man chose a suitable moment to help Kuntz win the exchange, and then created a second passed pawn. From that moment on it was only a matter of time before the game ended.
Of course, Kuntz did not wait for his opponent's pawn to be queened and resigned, the delay he had made in reaching this decision an affront to his own talent.
“Well, I have to go now,” said the older man, reaching for the money on the table, but the Russian was quicker and instantly covered it with his hand.
“Don't worry, it's all yours! I play fair, but I want a few answers first. I think you owe me that.”
The man nodded silently.
“You're not here by accident, that much is clear. You arrive in the morning and leave in the evening…You haven't even rented a room, have you?”
It sounded more like a statement than a question, and it happened to be perfectly true.
“Are you an International Master ?”
“No, just a Master,” he said humbly.
“So, that's how far I've fallen,” Kuntz stated bitterly. “You know who I am, don't you?”
“And yet you were sure you would win?”
A short, tactful silence preceded the answer. “I haven't stopped playing the game. I play every day, it's the only pleasure I have left now.”
“Someone remembered me from last year and now recognised the child – was that how it was?”
“More or less.”
“Ok, it doesn't really matter…You don't look like a gambler, though. What do you need the money for?”
The reply came after some hesitation.
“It's for my grandson. It's his 18th birthday soon. They named him after me and…I'd like to give him a present. That's it.” Another short pause. “I don't suppose pensions in Russia are that big, either,” he added apologetically.
The brawny waiter suddenly reappeared, announcing that the taxi was waiting outside. The elderly man carefully tucked away the onehundred-dollar bill into his wallet, while the waiter pocketed the 20.
“Hey, it seems it's not only chess you're good at!” Kuntz whistled approvingly. “That was in case I'd tried to back out of the deal, right?”
“Frankly speaking, yes,” the man replied. “It's a hard life, as you must know.”