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?…
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