Zugzwang, by Ronan Bennett

December 13, 2007 at 11:43 am (Book review, books)

zugzwang.jpg bennett500.jpg Yes, it’s a difficult word. It’s derived from the German and pertains to chess. Ronan Bennett defines it as a situation in which “…a player is reduced to a state of utter helplessness. He is obliged to move, but every move only makes his position even worse.” Well, you can see where this could be a useful term to apply to the plot of a thriller, and trust me, it definitely applies to this one!

The novel is set in St. Petersburg in 1914. (This would be a few short years before it became Petrograd – “St. Petersburg” seeming too Germanic a name during the First World War. Then, in 1924, three days after Lenin’s death, it was renamed Leningrad. Finally, in accordance with the results of a referendum, the city reverted to its original name in 1991. As Neal Ascherson says of Russian history in Stone Voices, “the past is said to be unpredictable…” )

Five days after the brazen murder, in broad daylight, of respected journalist O.V. Gulko, Psychoanalyst Otto Spethmann receives an unwelcome visit from the police. Inspector Lychev has questions for the doctor concerning yet another murder victim, Alexander Yastrebov. Yastrebov had been a student and also the suspected member of a terrorist cell. Spethmann has never even heard the name, but inexplicably, at the time of the murder, the young man was in possession of Spethmann’s calling card. Despite his protestations, the doctor is asked to appear at police headquarters the following day; furthermore, he is to bring his daughter Catherine. Catherine too is a university student, and Lychev implies that she knows something of the business at hand.

And so a more or less typical novel of intrigue is under way. By the time we reach Chapter Three, we’ve been introduced to two of the chief protagonists, and we are already dealing with two murder victims. The twists in the ever-thickening plot come thick and fast, and I pretty much stayed abreast of developments, though not without difficulty. The fact is, when I’m reading this kind of book, I tend not to worry about the more obscure niceties of the story. If the novel is enriched by intriguing characters and plenty ot atmosphere, I let those elements carry me along. Zugzwang possesses plenty of both, especially the latter. Bennett convincingly evokes the frenetic, paranoid ambience of a city on the verge not only of war but also of revolution.

In the course of the novel, Spethmann, a widower, enters into an unwise, not to mention unethical, love affair with a married woman named Anna. To this reader, in fact, the doctor’s actions often seemed reckless and perverse – sometimes, even downright foolish, considering that he is playing a cat and mouse game with notoriously ruthless adversaries. And the problem with the love affair is not only that it exposes, in a glaring fashion, the flaws in Spethmann’s character. It also gives the author the opportunity to write several excruciatingly explicit love scenes – sex scenes, really, that read like something straight out of a high concept porn novel. Spethmann is supposedly madly in love with Anna, but Bennett never showed me the love – only the lust.

This was the only major flaw, however, in what was otherwise a colorful and absorbing reading experience. I should also mention that references to chess games abound throughout and include those little diagrams that are so baffling to those of us not initiated into the mysteries of this ancient and complex game.

chess.jpg Don’t let yourself be thrown by the gameboards; understanding them is not essential to following the action of the novel.

Although the thriller will never be my favorite fiction genre, despite the few reservations expressed above I do recommend this one.

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