Alexis Levitin

Photo © Nick Levitin

Alexis Levitin

Alexis Levitin has published forty-seven books in translation, mostly poetry from Portugal, Brazil, and Ecuador. In addition to five books by Salgado Maranhão, his work includes Clarice Lispector’s Soulstorm and Eugénio de Andrade’s Forbidden Words, both from New Directions. He has served as a Fulbright Lecturer at the Universities of Oporto and Coimbra, Portugal, The Catholic University in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and the Federal University of Santa Catarina, in Brazil and has held translation residencies at the Banff Center, Canada, The European Translators Collegium in Straelen, Germany (twice), and the Rockefeller Foundation Study Center in Bellagio, Italy. He has three books coming out in the next year: Eugenio de Andrade’s Furrows of Thirst (Dialogos Books), The Craft of Revision: W.H. Auden at Work (Lexington Books), and The Last Ruy Lopez: Stories from the Royal Game (Russell Enterprises). He loves to travel and regrets that he did not spend his life in the Greek islands.

Chess on Naxos

For Lena              


I love Greek islands. I have been to seventy-four of them. The biggest was Crete, the smallest had no name, and in an hour I had swum around it.

I do not speak Greek, but I love the sound of it. Just listen to the music of the encircling Cyclades: Makronissos (where I have never been), Kea (forgive me, the only island I have forgotten), Kithos, Serifos (where I slept in an Orthodox church hostel on a monk’s bed hard as a stone), Sifnos, Milos (where my teenage son learned fifty words a day for his SATs), Folegandros (where a young disk jockey drove himself, with two Danish girls, over the cliff late one exuberant night), Andros (where I defeated the local cook who had been Greece’s Junior Chess Champion fifteen years before), Tinos, Mykonos (where in 1964 I slept like an angel on the beach, enveloped in a youth that will never come again), Delos (where no one could spend the night, but where tourists would arrive in flocks all day), Paros and tiny Anti-Paros (with its dark and unexpected cave), Ios (famous for discos, so I never went), Sikinos, Thira (Thera to classicists, Santorini to hordes of young backpackers), Donousa, Amorgos (where I lived in a mountain village with my son, by then out of college, and where he stayed on to write in that quiet, unknown village an hour’s walk on steep trails to the nearest beach, and Anafi, where I still hope, someday, to go.

Almost in the middle of that lovely mix of stony islands, sprinkled with houses like white cubes of bright sugar beneath the Mediterranean sun, stone houses of fresh whitewash accentuated by blue shutters and trimming, lies Naxos, famous for its classical ruins, its mountain peak, Mt. Zas or Mt. Zeus, the highest in the Cyclades, and its splendid beaches and gracious mountain villages. It is on Naxos that this very brief chess story occurs.

My woman friend at the time was a Brazilian ballerina. The two of us were equally in love with her body. I remember waking one morning to see her quietly sitting on the edge of our bed, slowly turning her arm to the left, then to the right, gazing steadily at what clearly, even now in retirement, was a work of art, her own chef d’oevre. She was happy whenever we were alone, but uncomfortable whenever others threatened the harmonious simplicity of our bubble. We had already been in Greece for a couple of weeks, and her finely tuned, delicately firm body had grown from something close to alabaster to its present healthy, sun-filled radiance.

I had just stepped out for a brief stroll and had encountered a young man on the deck of his downstairs apartment. I had inquired if he would like to play chess sometime and he had replied in the affirmative. “How about later this afternoon,” he suggested. Sounded good to me.

I trotted up the stairs to our own apartment, half bright with sunlight, half sequestered in grateful shade.

“Darling,” I proclaimed. “Guess what?” Her green eyes sparkled.

“What’s up?” she said in colloquial Portuguese. English was not part of her cultural heritage. I was happy enough, for I loved her Carioca accent, that flavor of Rio de Janeiro she carried with her at all times. It was a like a tropical fragrance, melding with her perfect body.

“I’m so lucky, honey. I found a guy who wants to play chess!”

“Oh, that’s marvelous!” she replied. “Just what you were looking for. I’m so happy for you, my love.”

“Yes, it will be great to have a few chess games. And it’s so convenient, the guy’s right downstairs in our own unit.”

“Wonderful. Come and give me a kiss.”

I leaned over and kissed her, for she was, after all, the princess of my life.

“So,” she went on, after removing her soft, moist lips from mine, “so when do you think you guys will get a chance to play?” She had a gentle smile on her flawless, classical face, balancing delicately above her ballerina’s slender but sturdy neck.

“Well, as a matter of act, I’m really lucky. He says he is available later this afternoon?”

“This afternoon?” It was as if a cloud, rare in the summer sky of the Aegean, had passed over the sun. “This afternoon?” Her smile was gone.

“Anything wrong with that,” I asked, but my heart was already constricting.

“This afternoon? So soon? No, I don’t think that is a good idea at all. Not at all!”

Needless to say Gregorio and I didn’t play chess that afternoon, nor did we play that evening. In fact, we never played a single game, and all I could do was go down, apologize, and point sheepishly upstairs in explanation. Gregorio understood and gave me a sad look and a slap on the back. “That’s life,” he said, in heavily accented English.

This is a very short story about chess on Naxos. A story that never occurred.

But boy was she beautiful.

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