Thoughtful, understated St. Petersburg psychoanalyst Dr. Otto Spethmann is about to enter the world of terrorism and intrigue. How does a retiring middle-aged widower like Spethmann, a man with no political leanings, end up involved in a plot to assassinate the Tsar of Russia? Like a pawn in a game of chess, he is being moved and manipulated by forces larger and more powerful than he. How long will he remain a pawn before taking action? And what kind of action will save his life?
Spethmann is the narrator of ZUGZWANG, the latest thriller from Irish writer Ronan Bennett. A sharply focused book with an unforgettable title (from a German chess term meaning helplessness), ZUGZWANG is set in 1914 as all of St. Petersburg is buzzing over an international chess tournament and as, in the shadows, revolution is brewing. After a young man's murdered body is found with Spethmann's business card in his pocket, the police start questioning and threatening the reserved doctor. His biggest concern is the safety of his daughter Catherine, but could she somehow be involved? As he begins to trust the enigmatic police detective Inspector Lychev, he realizes that those around him are not quite who they appear to be. How is his friend, the famous violinist Kopelzon, involved in these events, and why has he brought the neurotic chess player Rozental in for treatment? Can Spethmann trust the father of his lover, a man known as a ruthless political player? And how exactly does Anna Petrovna feel about him?
Spethmann has little time to contemplate these questions because as the chess tournament approaches, it is clear that he is in serious trouble, as are all the people he cares most about in the world: Anna, Kopelzon and Catherine. Spethmann must act to save himself, but his choices are limited; it seems he is trapped and that the worst may befall him.
Bennett's page-turner is constructed like the correspondence chess game Spethmann and Kopelzon are playing. It looks like Spethmann will lose the game to Kopelzon just as he always does, but then again he may have a few brilliant moves up his sleeve. Full of chess lingo, the book even maps out their ongoing game. Still, readers need not be chess players to follow the drama and intrigue as Spethmann tries to free himself from a helpless position.
Romance, Russian spies, chess, a Jewish resistance movement, psychoanalysis, murder and revolution --- ZUGZWANG has it all. It is at once the story of a time --- the tense years of early 20th century Russia --- and of an oppressed minority carving out a place amid the socio-political turbulence as many of the characters, Spethmann himself included, are Jewish. But Spethmann is accused of apathy toward the plight of his people in Russia and Poland, and while he may not end up forming clear political views, he is compelled to act as he never has before.
ZUGZWANG was serialized and published as it was written, but there have been some editorial changes with the publication of the book itself. Violent and sexy, it is an interesting exploration of the dynamics between the powerful and powerless and the drive for self-preservation in the direst of circumstances. And the twisting plot makes it an enjoyable and recommendable read.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 24, 2011