A Partial History of Lost Causes

Written by Jennifer Dubois
Review by Waheed Rabbani

In 1979 Leningrad, a stranger, Aleksandr Bezetov, arrives in town from the eastern USSR. He befriends three dissidents, and although Aleksandr is there to hone his chess skills at the Academy, he helps his cafe-mates publish a clandestine rag whose name provides the title of this novel. Eventually, Aleksandr rises to become the World Chess Champion, is provided a dacha, and marries a socialite. However, he still possesses a strain of dissension and after a chess match loss to a computer, he’s dejected and takes up politics full time. He opposes Vladimir Putin’s administration and, despite adversity, enters the 2008 presidential elections.

In 2006 Cambridge, Massachusetts, a 30-year-old college lecturer, Irina Ellison, has recently lost her father — an avid chess player — to Huntington’s disease. While rummaging through his collections, Irina comes across a copy of a letter that he’d written to Aleksandr asking a philosophical question: “In games where you’ve known all along you were losing … what is the proper way to proceed?” Alexandr doesn’t reply. Irina knows that the query was inspired by her father’s attempt to manage his terminal illness. She’s much intrigued, as she has also been diagnosed for the same malady and has been wondering how to organise her future life. Hence, Irina decides to leave Cambridge, and her Harvard Square chess player friends, for Russia to seek an answer from Alexandr.

This novel is narrated brilliantly by the two main protagonists, Irina and Alexandr, in alternating chapters. Dubois has admirably used the medium of chess to weave their stories together. Although some might find the detailed coverage of chess matches distracting, and while the conclusion is somewhat predictable, the period details in the novel make it an enjoyable read. The novel also provides appealing insight into how we could act in the face of insurmountable odds.