The Chess Garden, Brooks Hansen

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An utterly unique, ambitious, brilliant book I stumbled onto: think Cloud Atlas and Gulliver's Travels and Magic Mountain. The premise is a 19th century Dutch physician who goes to South Africa to work at the Bloemfontein refugee camp during the Boer War and sends letters home about a magical land called the Antipodes, which contain his experiences and insights in allegorical form.

The book jumps around in style and time, alternating between the doctor's biography (past and present) and the magical letters he writes home. It is the kind of book where you need to be willing to keep reading for a long time without immediately understanding, but there are images - too astounding for me to spoil: the water rising in the house, the queen in the garden, the tapestry stories, the house filled with darkness - which make it well worth your time.

I've been reading about the South African War (i.e., "The Boer War," 1899-1902), and in retrospect, I think I spent too much energy trying to "figure out" how the magical letters related to his experience there, but the focus is really on the Emmanuel Swedenborg-inspired mysticism the doctor comes to embrace.

I also think the biographical passages are secondary to the impact of the book - they are interesting, but take up too much space in relation to their overall importance. I'm not suggesting to skip them, because they are worth reading, but I've seen various reviewers mention getting bogged down in these sections. If you do get this bogged feeling, skim, but do not give up! Because there are haunting images waiting for you if you muscle past the drier middle parts.

And then there are passages like this one - I said I wouldn't spoil the best of the book, and it should be read in context, but the insight here is so stunning, and so rare, and so worth communicating to as many people as possible:

"...when one looks around at the world and sees the suffering and misery, one wants to help, of course, out of compassion, but that one is also advised, in his faith, to try to take a more detached, more reflective view sometimes--a view of things as they are, and an acceptance that all creation is constantly changing, and living and dying, and that this is as it should be.... The general wisdom, I think, is that these impulses actually approach one another. Perfect compassion will eventually learn perfect detachment and acceptance; and conversely, perfect detachment will learn compassion.... For practical purposes, until one reaches that point one just has to be careful, that is all--to be aware that acceptance can lead to idleness, and also that certain types of compassion can breed selfishness, or self-importance, and therefore misunderstanding."