(Reviewed by Sudheer Apte OCT 31, 2007)
Last year, the London newspaper The Observer ran a new novel by London-based journalist and author Ronan Bennett in weekly installments. The novel is now being published in book form. Named Zugzwang, it is a thriller with a political backdrop set in 1914 St. Petersburg, Russia.
Over the years, Ronan Bennett has written political literary novels filled with intrigue in faraway places and times. His stories, some reminiscent of Graham Greene, have been located in South America and in Belgian pre-independence Congo. One was set in the seventeenth century.
In Bennett's novels, apolitical people get drawn into the larger political turbulence around them. This happens in Zugzwang, too. The protagonist is one Dr. Spethmann, a prominent psychoanalyst in St. Petersburg. Spethmann is a widower who tries to protect his only daughter Catherine from the disturbances all around them in pre-revolution Russia.
This is a very fast-moving novel. In the first two short chapters alone, a newspaper editor is murdered in broad daylight, another apparent car accident also turns out to be a murder, and a police inspector comes to Spethmann's clinic to ask questions. Spethmann's business card has been found on the second body, and the policeman insists he come to the police station with his daughter the next day. Spethmann wonders whom he can call in order to get influence to bear on the police, to get them off his back.
The novel's action takes place over a few days' time, during which Spethmann meets a bewildering array of characters: undercover agents of the secretive interior ministry, policemen who act like thugs, Bolshevik party operatives, miscellaneous legendary terrorists, and several powerful people with ulterior motives.
Meanwhile, Spethmann's own life takes unexpected turns through two of his own patients. The first is Anna, a Russian beauty with whom he is developing an unprofessional relationship. The other patient, Rozental, is a renowned chess player, Jewish, visiting from Poland for a major chess tournament. Rozental has a one-track mind, concentrating on his upcoming contest with the real-life champion Emanuel Lasker. For some reason, the police seem to have a keen interest in Rozental's comings and goings.
The theme of the novel is the choices that confront Spethmann from the political turmoil around him, and how he makes these choices as the plot's twists and turns pummel him and his family, and as nefarious designs of some of the other characters are revealed. Zugzwang is an intense and satisfying thriller, but more than that, it shows the impossibility of love and controlling your own destiny in times of political turmoil.
During his adventures, Spethmann continues to play a long-running chess game with a friend of his, via correspondence and occasional dinners. Throughout the novel are interspersed his thoughts on the game, with board positions shown. The title of the novel, Zugzwang, is a condition in chess where one player is forced into choosing from a set of bad moves. As events in the novel heat up, so does the chess game. While chess enthusiasts will relish this side dish, others can safely skip these descriptions and still enjoy the main course.
The character of Rozental seems to be based upon a real-life chess Grandmaster named Akiba Rubinstein, who was Jewish and born in Poland. And satisfyingly enough, Rubinstein really did play Emanuel Lasker in St. Petersburg, in 1909. His strategy was the then-popular Queen's Gambit Declined, and Rubinstein won that game by Zugzwang.
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Second Prison (1991)
- Overthrown by Strangers (1992)
- The Catastrophist (1997)
- Havoc, in Its Third Year (2004)
- Zugzwang (2007)
- Stolen Year: Before and After Guildfor (with Paul Hill) (1990)
- Double Jeopardy (1993)
- Discoverer of the Human Heart-William Harvey 1578-1657 (2001)
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- Wikipedia page on Ronan Bennett
- Salon.com interview with Ronan Bennet and The Catastophist
- BrothersJudd.com review of The Catastrophist
- MostlyFiction.com review of Havoc, In It's Third Year
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About the Author:
Ronan Bennett was born in 1956 and brought up in Belfast, son of a Catholic mother and a Protestant father. In 1974, wrongly convicted of murdering an RUC policeman, he served time in the long Kesh prison camp.
The Catastrophist had shortlisted for the 1998 Whitbread Novel Award and Havoc, in Its Third Year is long-listed for the 2004 Man Booker. He has also written screenplays for film and television, highly acclaimed Hamburg Cell. He is also co-scripted the film Rainy Day with Alice Perman.
Bennett lives in London with his family.