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. . .