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  • Alan Bray

The Game - Primeval and Other Times

A strong thread in the episodic stream of threads in Primeval and Other Times concerns Squire Popielski and the Game. In mid-life, the Squire experiences a major emotional crisis after a painful love affair leaves him physically ill and bed ridden. Three questions occur to him as he struggles to recover:

Where do I come from?

What can a person actually know?

How should a person live?

His wife tells him there is a rabbi who is a healer and that she has asked the rabbi to come to see the Squire. (This is an example of the story showing the fortuitous mingling of Jewish and Christian people).

When the rabbi arrives, the Squire asks him the three questions. The rabbi responds, “You collect questions. That’s good. I have one more final question for your collection: Where are we heading? What is the goal of time?”

That’s two questions, actually. We should note that asking questions to spur insight and growth has a long rabbinical tradition, as well as a long philosophic tradition—our friend Plato as an example.

Upon leaving, the rabbi, having answered questions with questions, adds, “I will give you something that should now become your property.” The Squire is puzzled but feels better. The next day, the rabbi’s assistant delivers a gift, a large wooden box. There are intriguing compartments within, and in one, an old book with a Latin title: Ignis fatuus, Or An Instructive Game For One Player. (Ignis fatuus translates to English as something deceptive or deluding).

In another compartment, there is an octagonal die with a different number on each face, numbered from one to eight. The remaining compartments contain small brass figures of people, animals and objects. Underneath the compartments there is a piece of folded, frayed cloth. Unfolded, it covers “the entire empty space between his (the Squire’s) desk and the bookcases…It was a sort of game, a sort of ludo in the form of a huge, circular labyrinth.” (a ludo is a simple board game in which players advance counters by throwing dice).

“Kay, this is mysterious as heck. Is this game supposed to be a metaphor of some kind, my dear? Does the Game tie the stories’ vignettes together?

We shall see.

“The labyrinth drawn on the cloth board consists of eight circles called Worlds. The closer to the middle, the denser the labyrinth seemed to be. The outer circles were more spacious and brighter. The circle in the middle, the darkest and most tangled, was called the first world. An arrow was drawn in a copyist’s pencil by the first circle and the word Primeval.”

Why Primeval? The Squire wonders.

Why indeed?

“A complex system of little roads, intersections, forks and fields led to the second circle, called the Second World. Two exits led to the Third World. In each world, there were twice as many exits as in the previous one.” The Squire determines that there are 128 exits from the final circle of the labyrinth.

The book is an instruction manual written in Polish and Latin, describing each possible result of throwing the die. (Kabballah, anyone?)

The game itself is a map of escape. The player starts at the center of the labyrinth, and the aim is to pass through all the spheres and break free of the fetters of the Eight Worlds.

“The player sees his journey like cracks in the ice—lines that split, turn, and change direction at a dizzy pace…The player who believes in God will say: divine judgement, the finger of God…But if he doesn’t believe in God, he will say coincidence, accident. Sometimes the player will use the words, my free choice, but he is sure to say this more quietly and without conviction.”

So the Squire, a bored aristocrat, receives a game under mysterious circumstances. The game has the player begin at a point called Primeval and advance through a labyrinth by rolls of a die.

Well, if this really happened, what would you do? I’d probably lock the doors. Of course, this being a work of fiction, the Squire begins to play—even though, he concludes that the Game is the work of a lunatic. What else does he have to do? He’s a Squire, after all.

It’s of note that, at a time when the Squire is questioning his faith, he receives this enigmatic game from an enigmatic religious person.

“God manifested himself to Squire Popielski through the Game the little rabbi had given him. The Squire tried over and over to start the Game, but he found it hard to understand all the bizarre instructions.”

He plays the Game throughout WWII, during the period when German soldiers are billeted at his house. He keeps playing, moving to the different worlds, some of which have no God. His wife worries.

What can we make of this?

The story of the Game and Squire Popeilski’s playing of it is a significant thread, a recurring thread in a story made of recurring threads. The difference is that the other threads concern real people, the Game threads are more abstract. I’m going to say that, in the finest tradition of stories about games (Magister Ludi, Game of Thrones?) the Game that the Squire plays is an allegory for the lives shown in Primeval and Other Times.


The Game thread is the organizing theme in the book.

“Games can symbolize winning and losing, life and death, secrecy and foolishness or strategy and randomness. The many lessons a character and, by association, the reader can learn from the many facets of these games make what might be a deep and complicated story more clear to the everyman reader.”

The game is played by a player who moves by throws of a die (fate, coincidence) out of Primeval (the first place) into and through a maze of places, some of which have God, some no God. And this is what the book’s characters, Genowefa, Cornspike, Michal, Misia, do. Their lives pass through an extremely tumultuous and dangerous time in Poland, encompassing WWl, WWll and the Holocaust, and the establishment of the communist regime. And their lives as depicted provide answers to the questions posed by the Squire and the Rabbi.

Wait, wait! Is the Game a mise en abyme?

We should probably talk about that.

In a sense—bear with me here—the game creates the world. This is a common theme in religion, that the world as we know it is an illusion, constructed randomly and/or by design.

Heavy stuff.

Till next time.

#PrimevalAndOtherTimes #OlgaTokarchuk #AlanBray