Wednesday, 28 November 2007


AUTHOR: Ronan Bennett


DATE READ: November 2007

NOTES: Zugzwang: chess term derived from the German, Zug (move) and Zwang (compulsion, obligation). It is used to describe a position in which a player is reduced to state of utter helplessness. He is obliged to move, but every move only makes his position even worse.

This thriller is set in a pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg inhabited with anarchists, Bolsheviks, secret police and double agents. Dr. Otto Spethmann, a psychoanalyst, is visited by the police who demand to know his relationship with a dead man, Yastrebov. Spethmann has no knowledge of him but from then on a whole series of dramatic events unfold – murders, kidnappings, threats and assassination plots. There is a whole range of great characters: Rozental, the chess genius on the verge of a complete breakdown, Kopelzon, an acclaimed musician who is vain and hypocritical, Lychev, the intelligent and complex policeman and Anna, the damaged beauty with whom Otto falls in love. Otto’s daughter is also a surprisingly modern young woman – headstrong and liberated.

The plot is convoluted with lots of twists and turns involving revolutionary and counter-revolutionary plots – all great fun but infused with political and ethical dilemmas. Can the murder of one man be justified if it eventually means the lives of others can be improved?

The whole book is infused with a chess game between Spethmann and Kopelzon, complete with diagrams and moves. Even readers who don’t follow chess could enjoy this battle which is also reflected in the plot.

On the surface it appeared that Spethmann was the character who was obliged to move but in doing so only made his position worse but in fact Zugzwang was the position that Tsarist Russia found herself in – whatever was tried, things could only get worse.
A really great read - highly recommended.

And did I spot a mention of Djugashvili? Wasn’t that Stalin’s real name?

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