Sunday, November 11, 2007

Review—Zugzwang

One crafty move after another

Zugzwang, Ronan Bennett informs us in the beginning, is a German term that in chess, is used to describe a position in which a player "is obliged to move, but every move only makes his position even worse." Something similar can be said of the state Otto Spethmann finds himself in. A psychoanalyst, Spethmann is asked to treat Rozental, a gifted chess player who is to compete in the international tournament to be held in St. Petersburg in 1914, one which really did take place.

Bennett has bravely ventured into historical themes in his earlier fiction. The Catastrophist was set in the Belgian Congo and concerned itself with anti-Communist conspiracy. Havoc, in its Third Year, a grim tale on Catholic insurgency, was set in Yorkshire in the 1630s. It is in Bennett's nature to lend a contemporaneous spin on bygone events. So, in Zugzwang, the fight between Communist terrorists and the Tsar's intrigue-ridden police force is painted in strokes not dissimilar to the current discourse on the War Against Terror.

The novel begins with the murder of O. V. Gulko, a respected newspaper editor. But we learn soon enough that the body of another man, who goes by the moniker of Yastrebov, has also been discovered. Are the two murders connected, and what relation do they have with Spethmann, who is accosted by an eccentric police officer? It turns out that the women in Spethmann's life have a lot to account for. There is his daughter Catherine, a motherless child who harbors an elaborate trove of secrets of her own. And there is the enigmatic Anna, the estranged daughter of a local baron, who wields an inexorable pull on the unsuspecting Spethmann.

Oddly enough, Bennett uses well-worn tropes of the thriller genre—deceit, spy rings, propaganda—but his atmospheric evocation of pre-Revolution Russia, and the clever melding of chess moves with political subterfuge lend genuineness to his treatment. Zugzwang was serialized weekly in London's Observer in 2006, and one can see why. The book is composed of bite-sized nuggets, riveting in their own right, even as they merge into a satisfying whole.

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