Review: Throwing Dice On A Chessboard, by Christos Tsiailis

It is unusual for me to pick up and read a literary work, especially by a debut author. I am too busy a person to normally wander away from what I like the most, which is speculative fiction and non-fiction. I certainly wish I read ‘literary’ fiction more, and poetry, for that matter.

I am therefore very pleased to say that I managed the time and took the ‘leap’ to read Christos Rodoulla Tsiailis’ short anthology, Throwing Dice On A Chessboard. It most certainly was worthwhile.

Before I give my general impression of the work, and provide some detail on each of the short stories, I should dispense with an important area of improvement needed in the work. Christos is a Greek Cypriot and English is not his first language. While I am astounded with Christos’ mastery of elements of the English language, including an immense vocabulary, his work is unfortunately well represented with spelling, grammar and proofing issues. The classic (turning up several times in the first half reading of the anthology, is ‘lose’ versus ‘loose’ – fundamentally different meaning and hard to miss the eyesore). Accuracy of tense is another common issue. I wont belabor the point – this book needs a good editorial treatment, and probably indicative of a work that is self published.

BUT… and it is really important to ‘but’-in – this flaw is seriously overshadowed by a clearly talented and well-developed writer. This man is definitely going places.

Some works of fiction have a style that is more poetic than narrative based. This is just such a case. While there are cases of choices of words that perhaps are not quite right from a broad English idiomatic viewpoint, Christos has succeeded in expanding narrative to a level where unique phrases ARE apt, poetic, penetrating. I am a writer and I have learned things about expression in the English language from Christos. I thank him for that, in itself.

Each of Christos’ stories in this anthology are penetrating – loaded with metaphor and evocative imagery. There isn’t a single character who is two-dimensional – in many cases they are four-dimensional, if it is at all possible.

Perhaps to suffer being labeled a generaliser in this critique, the stories focus fair and square on characters, and this is somewhat supported by his (an artistic piece in itself) preface.

None of Tsiailis’ stories depict a normal world. Not one. They are super-normal, but by doing this, he provides the reader with a super-understanding of human nature, and what it is to be normal, and why ‘normalcy’ is in fact a lie.

This, perhaps, is what I like most about the anthology.

As I stated above his Preface is a piece of quality writing in itself. Tsiailis chose to write it almost like a literary essay – he makes a bold statement – there is no originality left in literature, so his stories will be a presentation of carefully produced thefts – but nothing is obvious in Christos’ work – his imagery is centred around
the ‘sounds’ of smoke – he is deliberately obfuscating in his Preface and is in fact going to provide the reader with stories (smoke) that have sound. Originality in my mind.

The following are brief appraisals of each of the short stories:

White Night Stones – This was a great start to the anthology as it immediately presented Tsiailis’ writing skills at its near-optimum. This story is essentially about a young girl’s thoughts and revelations while attending a wedding function, and provides an insight into her world, which encompasses her family and her extended community. It is honest and delves deeply into her psyche, and it is
superimposed (presented, so to speak) via her growing understanding of the behavior of bats in the night garden outside the wedding function. Her growth of understanding of how bats can ‘see’ in the dark run parallel with her growth into a woman. It was a strong and penetrating piece.

Nilusha Thilangi Kariyawasam – This short story was nothing short of superb. Utterly superb. I cannot grasp why Christos chose to write such an insightful piece set in Sri Lanka, with Sri Lankan protagonists, but it worked – mightily well. The simple and devastatingly sad story of a woman’s relationship with her daughter, and how it got complicated with her father, siblings and the nature of the community and society that these people were/are in, are revealed by simple second person discussion is impressive, and made the more readable by a hint, tinge of the religious supernatural. This is not a happy story, and yet it succeeds in part to uplift one’s spirit. This anthology is worth buying just for this story.

A Black Car Radio – is one story that, for me, doesn’t quite succeed in hitting its target, although again, is well written. Again the metaphors are skillfully constructed – the middle aged businessman, with complex psychological issues, finding his life centred around the
long journey to work and back, complicated by his unhealthy reliance on his radio and the tree-lined terrain lining the highway he was driving on. In my view Christos tried to push this too hard, to wring as much insight into the character as he could, where perhaps it was redundant to do so – I got it about halfway. Also, the conclusion – which I will not spoil for others – might have exploited the metaphor too far. Nevertheless, it was still a good read.

One SMS Behind – another very good story. Can’t give anything away here, but I can say that this is the first story where there is a twist at the end. Superficially, the twist controls the story and yet, when revising what I read in the story as a whole, it is a secondary force. What makes this story very very good is its insight, depth of presentation of the main character. It captures – you can almost smell – the Mediterranean, young, party set, alive and convincing – youthful, energetic, indestructible (irony here), and yet set in context with the ‘real world’ outside. Perhaps more than anything, Christos is telling us that some realities are short lived, fleeting.

Hi, I’m Stephan; I Am A Triplet Child – this is a lovely short story, that on the surface is a vignette – a slice of a day of triplet children in a household, and yet it really is about the nature of the ‘secret’ behaviors, relationships betwixt multiple birth siblings, and how it further complicates as it extends to the rest of the family, friends and community (school in this case). This is not nearly as deep or penetrating as his other stories, but is rings of truth, and sensibly, he leaves the deepest undercurrents of being a triplet to our imagination.

Shallow Oceans – this is one of my less liked stories, but it was intriguing. I think, like A Black Car Radio, it tried too much. Again, I don’t want to give too much away, but it, in my mind, is constructed of three parallel elements – a diver diving and what happens to him, the surrealistic affects of a brain being affected by some event during the dive, and a treatment of what consciousness is using the metaphor of the previous two elements. Tough gig in my mind. I don’t think it quite worked, but there are very good surrealist scenes being portrayed. I felt put off by footnoting of neurological terminologies – I think the use of it is a symptom of the excessive effort Tsiailis is making.

The last three short stories – I will comment as one – they really are a triptych – Up There On The Fig Tree, The Coffin Maker, and The Hotel Owner – these three titles represents the three phases of Stavros, the protagonist. It is a depressing story of a man who was abused in a most unusual way through his childhood, and how this forms the kernel of his unusual, stunted, largely unhappy life. The fig tree is the key symbol in these three stories, which I will leave for you to discover. The tree is the tool by which he is so grievously stunted (like the tree itself), and it is the tree that becomes the raw material for the remainder of his life (in being there in his life, and by creating an ugly hole in his life in its absence). And yet life goes on, which is certainly the theme of the third story, and proves that some positivism can emerge from a long lifetime of darkness, incongruity. This is a very good story (stories – very unusual to do it this way, perhaps it should have been more structured so this is obvious from a title point of view), among Christos’ best.

In summary, we have a wonderful, evocative writer here, and the only real negative of this anthology (other than it was in my mind too short), is the weakness in the English language. And yet, the strength of his themes, imagery and characterization transcends this to a high degree, making the majority of his stories highly worthwhile to read. Even the weaker stories (in my estimation) have merit, and contribute to the anthology as a whole.

I highly recommend this anthology to discerning, thinking readers. I rate it 4 well deserved stars.

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