Sunday, 16 December 2007

Zugzwang by Ronan Bennett

ZUGZWANG is a chess term used when a player must move, but any move makes his position worse.

In Ronan Bennett's thriller, Jewish psychoanalyst Dr Otto Spethmann is a man who stays away from politics.

But in the Russia of 1914, where Bolsheviks and Tsarist secret police are conducting an underground war, and the Black Hundreds - the anti-Semitic fascists - are hunting down supposed Jewish plotters.

Spethmann has two new patients. One is Avrom Chilowicz Rozental, a neurotic but brilliant chess player. "Rozental seemed destined to become the third World Chess Champion, feted everywhere from Berlin to New York, Tokyo to Buenos Aires."

But in the days before the St Petersburg chess tournament of 1914, Rozental is close to total breakdown, and the slithery Polish violinist and (possibly) political activist RM Kopelzon brings him to Spethmann for analysis.

The other new patient is the famous beauty Anna Petrovna Ziatdinov, wife of a "little lawyer with a violent temper", but more to the point, daughter of the terrifying man known as the Mountain, suspected of funding the Black Hundreds.

Spethmann and his beloved and wayward daughter Catherine soon become the target of the secret police. Both in his life and in the chess game that inhabits the book and reflects the action, he is in zugzwang.

A story impossible to put down, yet a little distant in its engagement with the era of revolution, Zugzwang works better as analogy for today's 'war against terror' than as a straight thriller.

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