Set in St. Petersburg in 1914, when revolution looms but chess tournaments play on, this exciting intellectual thriller traces the various forces contending for influence and power, in the city--the municipal police, factory workers, students, the secret police, Bolsheviks, Polish terrorists, and czarists, among others, with the newspapers and their editors wishing to report the truth but wary of choosing the wrong side in the ultimate battle. Despite the turbulent conditions, the city's lovers seek happiness, though they must often endure the same sorts of powerful reversals as political rivals. A chess game, which plays throughout the novel, is a metaphor for the moves and countermoves among the contenders for power the city and among the lovers searching here for love. Most appropriately, both politics and love reach a state of "zugzwang," that state in which one player is reduced to helplessness, obliged to move, with each move making the situation worse.
Dr. Otto Spethmann, a St. Petersburg psychoanalyst, stays out of the turmoil of politics, counseling two particularly fascinating patients. Avrom Chilowicz Rosental, a contender for the Grandmaster of Chess Award in the upcoming tournament, is a shy, sad Pole on the verge of a breakdown, virtually unable to communicate except on the chess board. Anna Petrovna Ziatdinov, a famed beauty tormented by memories, is the daughter of a rich industrialist suspected of funding the Black Hundreds and their attacks on Jews. Despite this "ordinary" life, Spethmann is drawn into an increasing spiral of violence.
A young man, found bludgeoned to death, carries Spethmann's card, and Rosental's file is stolen from his office. Spethmann and his daughter are arrested and interrogated, and the police, secret police, and anti-czarist extremists all pursue him for unknown reasons. Spethmann's friends may or may not be true friends, and his growing fondness for Anna, his patient, presages violence on the part of her husband and father. The connection of the pathologically shy Rosental to all the machinations remains a mystery throughout the increasingly violent action.
Bennett is a master of creating and using settings to showcase characters acting under extreme stress, and this novel is no exception. Though the action follows the thriller style, with a rapid narrative and fast-moving complications, the real focus is on the characters, not the plot. Spethman is an honest man trying to live his live in a most dishonest atmosphere, and the confusion he expresses as his life spins out of control draws in the reader who empathizes with his predicaments. As "zugzwang" is reached politically in St. Petersburg, Spethman also finds his familial and social ties reaching "zugzwang," a bleak outcome on all counts. Exciting, emotionally involving, historically realistic, and masterfully written, the novel appeals both to the heart and to the intellect. Mary Whipple