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Zugzwang [Hardcover]

Ronan Bennett
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)

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Book Description

3 Sep 2007
Zugzwang: derived from the German, Zug (move) + Zwang (compulsion, obligation). In chess it is used to describe a position in which a player is reduced to a state of utter helplessness. He is obliged to move, but every move only makes his position even worse. St Petersburg, 1914: imposing and shabby, monumental and squalid, and - under its surface of frosty glamour - seething with plots and secret allegiances. On a blustery April day O.V. Gulko, a respected newspaper editor, is murdered in front of a shocked crowd. Five days later Dr Otto Spethmann, famous psychoanalyst, receives a visit from the police. There has been another murder in the city - and somehow he is implicated. He is mystified - and deeply worried, as much for his young, spirited daughter as for himself. He is preoccupied, too, by two new patients: Anna Petrovna, the society beauty plagued with nightmares with whom he is steadily and inappropriately falling in love, and troubled genius Rozental, the brilliant but mentally fragile chess master, due to play the most important competition of his life - the spectacular St Petersburg chess tournament - but on the verge of a complete breakdown. With the city rife with speculation and alarm, Spethmann broods over his own chessboard, its pieces frozen mid-battle, and contemplates the many forces - political, historical, sexual - that are holding him in their grasp

Product details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC; 1st Edition edition (3 Sep 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0747587116
  • ISBN-13: 978-0747587118
  • Product Dimensions: 22 x 14 x 3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,283,171 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


`A clever and exciting thriller ... Chess writer and acclaimed novelist Bennett has produces a crime novel that's both literary and gripping, a rare treat' -- John Harding, Daily Mail

`A potentially rich metaphor for life... a racy addition to chess fiction' -- Steven Poole, Guardian

`This classy, literate thriller is about chess, psychoanalysis, Russian skullduggery, history, mystery, romance - and more' -- Kate Saunders, The Times

About the Author

Ronan Bennett was brought up in Belfast. He is the author of four novels, including the hugely acclaimed The Catastrophist (shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel Award) and Havoc, in Its Third Year (winner of the Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year and longlisted for both the Booker Prize and the IMPAC award). He has also written screenplays for film and television. Zugzwang was serialised weekly in the Observer in 2006. Ronan Bennett lives in London with his family.

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Customer Reviews

4.0 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
"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 excused if it eventually means the lives of others can be improved? Can terrorism be justified?

The whole book is infused with a chess game between Spethmann and Kopelzon, complete with diagrams and moves. Even readers (like me)who don't follow chess could enjoy this battle which is also reflected in the plot.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
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.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good Atmosphere, Weak Plotting 7 Dec 2007
Contemporary thrillers aren't generally my cup of tea, but I am prone to picking up historical ones if the setting is interesting or premise is unusual. Here, the setting of St. Petersburg, Russia circa 1914 was all I needed to dive in -- the winds of war gust about, and Tsar Nicholas II sits uneasily in his palace, his country beset by revolutionary terrorists. Amidst this tumult we meet psychoanalyst Otto Spethmann, a middle-class Jewish doctor concerned primarily with his practice, the welfare of his teenage daughter, and an ongoing game of chess with his composer/playboy friend.

However, before you can repeat the apocryphal line, "You may not be interested in the revolution, but the revolution is interested in you!" -- Spethmann is caught up in a very tangled web of intrigue involving Moscow policemen, the Tsar's secret police, Bolshevik cells, Polish terrorists, anti-Jewish aristocrats, chess masterminds, and the sexy daughter of a powerful man. Naturally of these many characters are not quite what they seem, and Spethmann's innocence is methodically stripped away by all the factions at play. The title is a German term for a chess scenario "in which a player is reduced to a state of utter helplessness. He is obliged to move, but his every move only makes his position worse." This is meant to highlight Spethmann's predicament, -- as well as that of the Tsarist government.

The story suffers slightly in two aspects. First is the running chess game between Spethmann and his best friend, which is illustrated with pictures of the state of play. As the story progresses, the tension between them grows, and the game takes on increasing symbolism.
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