Oulipo Goes to Japan

“Shadows are under five billion trees.”

– Ray Bradbury

Have the American Exceptionalists ever played Go, the ancient Chinese game of strategy? It is well-known that the Iranians are very good at chess and that the Egyptians call Putin Vladimir the Fox. The fox is a shapeshifter and trickster according to ancient Chinese lore. Chinese legend also states that Emperor Shun invented Go 4000 years ago to sharpen the wits of a dull son. Washington’s wits remain dull. Their game of choice is probably checkers, despite all that cant about Game Theory, ‘pivoting’ and counterinsurgency. The English play conkers, which originated with a king named William in 1066, and rhymes with bonkers.

Go arrived from China to Japan in 735 AD, where it soon became the national game. It appears in Lady Murasaki’s immortal Tale of Genji and in the famous scroll which illustrates scenes from the novel. The black and white Goban board and its round stone pieces are quite clear in the painting: the beautiful Governor’s wife is engaged in a game with her friend, while the hero Prince spies on them from an adjacent room. Murasaki sees Love is a ploy for all players, not as a solitary gamble. Thus the authors of A Short Treatise Inviting the Reader to Discover the Subtle Art of Go introduce us to the greatest of all board games via art, with a few added stingers tossed at a self-satisfied West (the book was written in 1969, after all). But as Pierre Lusson, Georges Perec, and Jacques Roubard are members of the shadowy Oulipo group (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle), this is no ordinary how-to manual. Nothing is quite what it seems, yet everything is eminently functional. It uses forgery and gossip, strategic theory and irony, adolescent puns and an obsessive love of gaming life that makes the digital tribalists look like cobwebbed sansabelts in comparison.

The aim of Go is to take territory, and not just the mere capture of enemy pieces. Territory is captured in Go by rendering the opponent’s pieces immobile. Players trade single moves, though in certain situations refusing a turn is permitted. Each piece moves only once per game to one of 4 permissible one-step positions on the grid. Atomically, all are worth the same point (forces that have surrounded an opponent’s formation can claim the whole territory and its points). Territory and pieces are considered dead when their ‘liberties’ (katsuro) are cut off. Pieces taken – they can never be freed – do accumulate points in the scoring system, but the end goal is to control the board using the best-placed forces in the most beautiful of forms. The game is played until defeat becomes utterly apparent for one side or until it is agreed there can be no more fruitful moves; to play longer is considered the height of incompetence. Points and territories are then added up for a final score.

But Go is not a straight win-lose set. Individual plays can triumph over an overall victory in terms of aesthetics if not in rigid score and winning is not always the result of higher skill (Kawabata’s great novel The Go Master makes this point clear). A handicap system even levels the field in cases of an unequal deficit and it is not considered undignified to accept it on any player’s part. Go games can take as long as six months to end, which makes it a game of waiting punctuated by necessary plays ranging from the visually devastating to the almost imperceptible. Time allows thought to move on different planes, as in the tea ceremony or the contemplation of excellent calligraphy. The West – whatever that means – has always been lousy at waiting.

The great games of past masters provide lessons for the present-day. Accounts a thousand years old (or from six months ago) can never be ossified relics, as each game differs infinitely while essentially it remains the same. There are rules on deciding a draw, the invulnerability of a formation having two open spaces – called eyes (me) – but here we move into arcane and possibly harmful complexities. Go buy the book.

Go is frequently equated to the shallow kingmanship of chess. For authors Perec et al., the comparison takes on a hilariously polemical form with all kinds of slander heaped on those who practice its crude and oily pleasures. The sort of cheap psychological tricks used by Bobby Fisher against Boris Spassky would be considered vulgar and embarrassing for even the most inexperienced Go amateur (and even more ineffective against Bruce Lee). Poor form leads to a victorious collapse at best and after that, to some amount of time in one of the iciest of Buddhist Narakas. Chess is itself of Chinese origin (its real name is Xiangqi), but feudal absorption and compromise has turned it into a bloody analogy fit only for the likes of a Brzezinski.

Go certainly is a game of war, yet it seems to reflect more of a civil war than one of borders (the game dates back before the Ch’in made what is called a ‘unified’ China). Chinese Chess has a line down the center board called the ‘river’ (), which was retained when the game came to us via India and Iran. Go has no such area, which means it has no central confrontation point. There are no ‘sides’ per se. The Goban board is made up of undivided, potential territories.

Perhaps this is where the shadow of Paris ’68 hangs over the Short Treatise’s pages, as it does over other French works of the time such as Rivette’s gamey Out 1 and Debord’s playable Game of War. The book digs at the day’s trendy Maoists while recognizing the superiority of a Chinese game that is concerned ultimately with controlling territory and the aesthetics of contrast in grids, patterns, and lines. Go reminds one of access points in cities, urban planning, Haussmannization, and the psychology of spatial control. Modern cities are always the terrain of a possible civil war, theaters of action against a populous center prey to militarized peripheries, and the transformation of streets into vectors of armored state influence.

To make Oulipoian jokes translatable is a labor equal to that of making the rules and philosophy of Go graspable for the layman. For this beautiful Wakefield Press edition, translator Peter Consenstein has done both with the skill and soul of a Hayashi, Inoue, or Mutabzija. No doubt, some of the typical landmines of Oulipo productions remain buried, but the accidental and deliberate are ploys for a group that has always seemed to be a dagger aimed at state intelligence agencies and compromised academe – not to mention the cadaverous heart of Silicon Valley. Like all their projects, this one is extremely political and even more extremely semi-mad. Rules, restraint and regulation are the gospel of the Oulipo lab – and what better example is there than an ancient boardgame?

I think this important book will be little read in our Versailles on the Potomac, itself so full of warring territories. Not to mention the massive amounts of monetary force used to push lemons like the pitiful Hawk defense program (the Hauthi are clearly the equivalent of the Hon’imbō Go grandmasters of Japan). Our eggheads can never seem to get beyond confusing the map with the territory, which is considered the first rule in games like Go. This is also true of that Go game known as real life.

A game of Go was on its third and final day in the Hiroshima prefecture on August 6 1945; it concluded that evening, after some interruption around 8:15 AM. Go, and Gog and Magog go with you.


Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.