The Forest in a Chessboard

In “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino and translated by William Weaver, the aged Kublai Khan and the young Marco Polo sit in a palace garden while Polo diverts the emperor by telling tales of his travels (or so it seems at first).

Towards the end of the book the two play chess and Kublai Khan reflects on what he has lost as he has gained.

By disembodying his conquests to reduce them to the essential, Kublai had arrived at the extreme operation: the definitive conquest, of which the empire’s multiform treasures were only illusory envelopes; it was reduced to a square of planed wood.

Then Marco Polo spoke: “Your chessboard, sire, is inlaid with two woods: ebony and maple. The square on which your enlightened gaze is fixed was cut from the ring of a trunk that grew in a year of drought: you see how its fibers are arranged? Here a barely hinted knot can be made out: a bud tried to burgeon on a premature spring day, but the night’s frost forced it to desist.”

Until then the Great Khan had not realized that the foreigner knew how to express himself fluently in his language, but it was not his fluency that amazed him.

“Here is a thicker pore: perhaps it was a larvum’s nest; not a woodworm, because, once born, it would have begun to dig, but a caterpillar that gnawed the leaves and was the cause of the tree’s being chosen for chopping down. . . This edge was scored by the wood carver with his gouge so that it would adhere to the next square, more protruding. . .”

The quantity of things that could be read in a little piece of smooth and empty wood overwhelmed Kublai; Polo was already talking about ebony forests, about rafts laden with logs that came down the rivers, of docks, of women at the windows. . .

Suzanne Ellison

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9 Responses to The Forest in a Chessboard

  1. momist says:

    My English teacher in high school told me once of a teacher who could not get his pupils to write a good essay and divined that they were overwhelmed by trying to describe too large a subject. In the end, he asked them to write about the building across the street, no, not the whole building, but just the third brick down on the left of the window. They all turned in an essay.

    • saucyindexer says:


    • colsdave says:

      Robert Pirsig also writes of this in ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’. Incidentally, when checking this, I saw that Pirsig died April 24th.

      • momist says:

        Ahh, yes. I perhaps was remembering from that, it was a long time ago. I have a copy somewhere around, as I never throw away a book. Maybe it was my English teacher recommended it to me?

  2. nrhiller says:

    Love, love love. The picture, too.

  3. scwilco says:

    Thanks so much!

  4. Eric R says:

    True wisdom can surface at any time.
    (You are one of my favorite writers.)

  5. isanddoes says:

    You are the best!

Comments are closed.