Life is an ongoing, premeditated chess game and those who live life move like pawns on the chessboard. The chess game that took place in a train at the dawn of World War I in Ignacio Padilla’s book, Shadow Without A Name, irreparably changed the lives of at least four men whose identities became warped even after death. The novel cleverly evokes the question of identity and selfhood against the historical backdrop of the darkest period of the twentieth century, as men appropriated names of each other, shielded off past memories and adopted new identities in the hope of a changed, better destiny. It was a time in which the truth became shrouded by lies and the lies adopted as truth.
Four men contribute to the narrative, which, in an overlapping interval of time, recounted the sequence of events that spanned decades as well as continents following the chess game in 1916, between Viktor Kretzschmar and Thadeus Dreyer.
In 1957, in Buenos Aires, Franz Kretzschmar reminisced his father, Viktor Kretzschmar, who faced Thadeus Dreyer on a chessboard for a life-and-death game. The winner would take Kretzschmar’s identity as a railway signalman in Salzburg and the loser would head to the Austro-Hungarian eastern front, which promised death. When Franz’s father (the true and only Thadeus Dreyer whose name had been appropriated and incarnated throughout the book) won the game, little did he know the exchange of documents would lend him a warped identity though he saw the deadly wager as a promise of immortality. However he despised trains, Franz’s father approached the job with unbounded enthusiasm and not the slightest of his despondency betrayed his imposture until he was found guilty of premeditating a train accident near Salzburg. He wasted away in a sanatorium upon release from jail, rendered unable to recognize his son, let alone Franz’s revengeful efforts to restore his father’s peace of mind.
Richard Schley was a seminarist falsely elevated to priesthood who attended to near-death soldiers and gave vespers in 1918. Schley met his childhood friend Jacob Efrussi who changed his name to Thadeus Dreyer, in the time of the pandemonium caused by the Balkans on the Austrian front in 1918. Efrussi (or Dreyer), who had stolen so many names and lived under so many identities, persisted in denying his real name. Another name swap occurred as Efussi agreed to stake his fate on a chess game with Richard Schley, who found Efrussi in the midst of ravages and brought him home from the front.
Alikoshka Goliadkin was an orderly of General Thadeus Dreyer during his rise in the Nazi reign. This man was the key to unveil the clandestine relationships between Franz Kretzschmar, Adolf Eichmann and Dreyer. At the time, Dreyer supervised the training of a small legion of impostors (doubles) who would occasionally replace senior party officials or served as decoys in public appearances considered high-risk. Goliadkin was the only man who knew the where about of Dreyer and his impostor team (which was reported to vanish without a trace) when the project fell out of favor with the Nazi.
Daniel Sanderson, one of the three heirs of Baron Woyzec Blok-Cissewsky who left an encrypted code in a chess manual that would resolve the whole mystery about the aforementioned men. The baron, took residence in Poland during his late years, turned out to be yet another incarnation of Thadeus Dreyer. The seemingly impregnable encrypted code embedded the secrets of the many failed attempts by Nazi officers opposed to Hitler’s policies to destroy the regime from within. As Sanderson investigated the baron’s connection with Eichmann, he became alert at the fact that a fourth heir who resided in a Frankfurt sanatorium existed!
This book presents a story within stories, twisted and shrouded. At each turn of a page, at each switch of narrator, the book challenges readers with the question: is the man who he says he is? I have to flip back and forth to make sure I do not have the slightest confusion of who is who, though it is sometimes inevitable to fall into the trap of which who I think the man is. Once I get used to all the name swap and appropriation, and the underlying connection or disconnection of all the Dreyer incarnations, the book is a tantalizing, suspenseful, mesmerizing read. The constant changes of identities do not lose the way. It is cleverly written, with finesse and attention to details. It holds your breath to the end.