Monday, November 26, 2007

Book Review: Zugzwang

I have a confession to make. I read Zugzwang by Ronan Bennett, a thriller based in 1914 St. Petersburg, and barely glanced at the illustrations of the chess game that is played throughout the course of the novel. If I were a chess enthusiast, the subtle nature of the moves would have been of interest but for louts such as myself they became a minor distraction from a very entertaining tale.

Dr. Otto Spethmann, an astute but apolitical psychoanalyst, is quickly ensnared in a complicated conspiracy against the Czar. The subsequent ride through a Russia about to go from bad to terrible is well-paced and informative. Dr. Spethmann, whose patients include a noted chess master, a Bolshevik leader, and the beautiful daughter of an anti-Semitic power broker known as The Mountain, finds that his own life is in zugzwang, a chess term for a position in which a player must move but every move makes his position worse.

Bennett deftly evokes the atmosphere of a society in which an international chess tournament can seize the attention of the local populace while terrorist bombs are exploding around the city. People debate the prowess of chess masters as revolutionary and counter-revolutionary plots proliferate, the Czar's advisors are divided between pro-German and pro-French factions, and the First World War is just over the horizon.

Zugzwang moves quickly - there is not a moment when history gets in the way of the plot [take that, Marx!] - and yet the underlying message comes through quite clearly: The real madness in St. Petersburg is not in Dr. Spethmann's office.

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