I went to the tiny town of Laugarvatn in southern Iceland to spend a month at an artists colony writing a novel. Little did I know that I was about to become re-re-obsessed with Bobby Fischer.
I initially became obsessed with Bobby Fischer back in the early 70s, when he dominated the chess world like Balanchine dominated dance, or Babe Ruth dominated baseball. He became the world champion when he won the most famous chess match in history, in Reykjavik in 1972. He was one of the most brilliant human beings of the 20th century. His chess games were Mona Lisas.
I became re-obsessed with Fischer in the early 2000s, when his anti-Semitism reached virulent new heights – “Jews are a filthy, dirty, disgusting, vile, criminal people,” he said in one interview – and his anti-Americanism led him to proclaim that the 9/11 attacks were “wonderful news. It’s time to finish off the U.S. once and for all.” How had this man, this genius, turned into such an evil idiot? How had this American, born to a Jewish woman no less, developed such self-loathing? Seeing him speak back then, I wanted to shake him. “You’re Jewish, for God’s sake! Pull yourself together!”
But eventually, since no better explanation for his behavior was ever forthcoming, I just said to myself, he’s crazy, and forgot about him. He went into hiding in Asia for a few years because he’d broken a United Nations embargo against Yugoslavia. Then the law caught up with him. Pictures surfaced of Fischer in a Japanese jail, wearing a scummy beard and an old gray ballcap. Underneath it you could still see those brilliant eyes, but something was wrong with them. They were both unfocused and way too intense.
He was crazy.
He had renounced his American citizenship, so he was without any place to go. But then seven elderly men from Reykjavik, who had met Fischer way back in 1972, petitioned the Icelandic Parliament to declare him a citizen of Iceland and give him a home.
The Parliament said yes. Fischer flew to Iceland and spent the last three years of his life there, before dying in 2008.
I had forgotten this last portion of Fischer’s life. But then I arrived in Laugarvatn and learned that Bobby Fischer was buried only forty kilometers away, in the small town of Selfoss. There is a museum dedicated to his memory: the Bobby Fischer Center, open every day from 1 to 4 p.m.
And that’s when I got re-re-obsessed. The great Bobby Fischer, the horrible Bobby Fischer, buried in a tiny town in Iceland? How could this be?
And what did the Icelanders think of him? How did they feel about his anti-Semitism? Were they anti-Semitic, in this quiet little island that, at least in June when I was there, was as close to paradise as any place I’ve ever been?
I don’t have to tell you that anti-Semitism is back in fashion today in the United States and Europe. Now for me personally, as a Jew, this is not a huge surprise. I’ve never felt totally safe in the United States. Yeah, we’ve had a good two-hundred-and-fifty year run, but I know my history. Every country we’ve ever been in, we eventually got kicked out.
So all my life, I’ve kind of kept my eyes open for possible escape hatches, if it comes to that: Israel. Ireland. New Zealand. Iceland.
But now was Iceland going to be out of the question? So I went in search of, not so much Bobby Fischer, as what Icelanders thought about Bobby Fischer.
I began with Katla, the pixyish blonde artist who ran our artists colony. “Katla,” I said, “I noticed Bobby Fischer is buried near here.”
“Yes,” she said, as she kneaded a loaf of rye bread she was making for us starving artists. “Isn’t that great?”
“He was a great chess player,” I said, “but he was kind of crazy too.”
“Crazy? How do you mean?”
“Well, he had some pretty out-there views,” I said.
I decided not to mince words. “He was very anti-Semitic.”
English isn’t Katla’s first language. “Anti-Semitic? You mean like, anti-Jew?”
“Yes, he was very anti-Jewish.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that.”
She didn’t know? Did Icelandic people not care enough about his anti-Semitism to talk about it?
Later I asked Katla’s husband Einar about Fischer. Einar, it turned out, knew of Fischer’s anti-Semitism. He said, “Yes, Fischer was very, shall we say, eccentric? In Iceland we tend to be very, what’s the expression – ‘live and let live.’”
“Huh,” I said. Eccentric? The man was a monster. Well okay, maybe you could say he was more mentally ill than monstrous, but he believed that “these goddamn Jews have to be stopped. They’re a menace to the whole world.”
“I don’t know,” I said, “to me being anti-Semitic or racist or whatever is worse than just being eccentric.”
“You have to understand,” said Einar. “When Fischer came to Iceland, and insisted that we have the world championship here, this put Iceland on the map. That’s how you say, right? ‘On the map’?”
The next night Einar and Katla invited a woman named Hekla over. Hekla is a published fiction writer and a former candidate for president of Iceland. That’s not quite as impressive as it sounds; Iceland is full of people who are former candidates for president, and she only got about one and a half percent of the vote. But still. No doubt Hekla could give me the worldly Icelandic view of Bobby Fischer.
“Sure, Bobby Fischer,” she said when I mentioned him. Her face brightened. “My uncle owns a bookstore in Reykjavik. Bobby Fischer used to hang out there all the time.”
“Really,” I said. “What was he like?”
“Oh, you know,” she said. “He just used to hang out there. A lot of people would hang out there. It’s that kind of place.”
“Did he seem, you know, crazy?”
Hekla looked at me, puzzled. We were standing around in the kitchen before dinner. “Crazy? No. My uncle said he was a nice guy. Why do you say crazy?”
Did she really not know what I was talking about?
“Well, he had some pretty extreme views.”
“Oh yes, he was very anti-American.”
“And anti-Semitic. He was terrible that way.”
“Well, you know, people have a right to believe what they believe.”
At this point, Katla noticed that the conversation was about to go off the rails. She swooped in and noisily offered everyone wine.
Later, over dinner, Hekla described some of her experiences as a child traveling in the Middle East. It became clear to me that she herself was not anti-Semitic.
But if I knew somebody was a virulent racist, would I say hey, he has the right to believe what he believes? I mean I guess that’s technically true, but this stuff kills people.
I’m scared that during the next twenty or thirty years, many Jews may be about to die in Europe because of anti-Semitism. Not that we Jews are the only ones at risk there because of ethnic hatred. We have plenty of company.
I finally hustled up a car ride to Selfoss to visit the Bobby Fischer Center. It was on the second floor of a building on the main street. On the first floor, you could buy tourist knickknacks.
It cost one thousand Icelandic krona to get in. But if you’re thinking of going, don’t stress too much. That’s about eight dollars.
The museum, I must say, was quite moving. There were pictures of Fischer at his handsomest, most alive, with alert flashing eyes. And pictures of him forty years later in that funky beard and ball cap, looking drugged. There were books and videos of his most famous chess masterpieces.
There were also displays of Iceland in the early 70s, with videos of joyful natives greeting Fischer and descriptions of how much the world championship match had meant to them. The match took place less than three decades after Iceland finally gained independence, and it was their national coming out party. They were forever grateful to Fischer for insisting the match be held in Iceland.
Much to my relief, the museum acknowledged Bobby Fischer’s anti-Semitism. It was conveyed on at least three different plaques with great sadness. The Icelanders in charge of this museum were very aware that his views weren’t just eccentric or crazy, they were evil. The museum made no lame apologies on Fischer’s behalf.
These people still… As Einar might have said, “They still, how would you say… love? Admire? Respect? They have great interest in Bobby Fischer.”
Well, I can relate; I have great interest in him too.
And I guess you could say, who am I to judge? I’ve admired the writing of people who held slaves and seen movies directed by people who were probably rapists.
After I left the museum, I walked the mile and a half to Fischer’s grave. He’s buried in the front yard of a small, white, wooden church on the outskirts of town. The church probably fits eighty people inside if they all jam close together. His tombstone just gives his name, date of birth, and date of death. It’s small, no bigger than any of the fifteen or twenty other tombstones. There were no flowers, no nothin’. Just Bobby Fischer’s grave.
So anyway, I went searching for Bobby Fischer, and I guess I found him.
Now I guess I do have one more thing to say. I had a great time in that tiny Icelandic town. Katla was a generous host, and Einar drove us to nearby waterfalls and ice cream restaurants. Baldur, at the diner down the road, gave us free Icelandic skyr cake and hung out with us. The phlegmatic teenage lifeguard at the municipal swimming pool, after he got to know me, actually smiled when he saw me coming – and Icelanders, though friendly, are not known for smiling. It’s something that, as an American, you have to get used to.
And we had a lot of good communal meals at the artists’ colony. The lesbian poet from Tennessee, the Indian from Australia who wrote “weird fiction” as he called it, the British visual artist who painted a chair blue and took photographs of himself carrying it all over Iceland, the Native American memoirist who was writing about his father, and the Jewish crime writer from Los Angeles (that’s me) all cooked up a storm and had a great time together. We ate communal dinners at the dining room table overlooking the town and had hilarious debates long into the night about whether the blue chair was Brit or Hindu or Jewish, eventually deciding it was all three.
I guess what I’m saying is, there’s a lot of love in the world too. The corny stuff is true: we’re all pretty much the same, and person to person, we’re usually nice to each other.
So who knows? Maybe this current wave of hatred in Europe and the United States will subside. And if not, well, let’s root for New Zealand.
This piece was originally published in the Jewish Journal.