'Zugzwang', as it tells you on the back of this book, is a position in Chess, where a player must make a move but any move he does make will result in his downfall. It seems a wonder that it's taken this long for somebody to use it a title for a thriller. It was worth the wait.
The novel is set in St Petersburg in 1914, tension is high and revolution in the air. When a journalist is found murdered, pschoanalyst Dr Otto Spethmann finds himself and his young daughter implicated in the crime. There then follows a complex unravelling of plots, counter-plots and double and triple crossings. It's marvellous stuff.
Bennet's writing is excellent, the depictions of revolutionary St Petersburg are so vivid you can almost smell the gunpowder. In addition we are treated to an intriguing Chess game that runs throughout the novel. By the end of the book, just about all of the major characters have had Zugzwang's of their own, which just adds to the tension and excitement. Predictably, there is also some romance between the Doctor and one of his patients but to be honest some of these sections must have come close to winning a 'Bad Sex' award.
Bad Sex aside, Zugzwang is a terrific read with an end that doesn't disappoint. The last paragraphs of this novel are powerful and thought provoking; they should be required reading for those in power, who hope to make the world a safer place. Historical crime and thriller junkies will love it, as will those with a passing interest in chess.
on 31 July 2010
St Petersburg immediately before the start of WWI and only three years before the Russian Revolution is full of spies, strikes, intrigue, repression and corruption. Dr Otto Spethmann is a Freudian psychoanalyst whose clients include a chess-player who is cracking up, a Bolshevik firebrand (also cracking up) and the daughter of a sinister anti-semitic politician (definitely cracking up). Meanwhile his own daughter has become involved with an anarchist poet who's just been murdered, attracting the attention of the police, the racist politician, and sundry Bolsheviks and anarchists. As the body-count grows, he nonetheless finds time for an ongoing chess-match with his best friend - who is a famous violinist - and the progress of their end-game is aided by illustrated chess-boards through the novel.
The love-story is maybe a little weak and this is nowhere near as good as 'The Catastrophist', but I thought the pace and tension built up well and the twists were suitably surprising. But most of all, I found the setting fascinating, with the city's pre-revolutionary extremes of glamour and squalor, the Eastern European fascination with chess, and the increasing difficulty of staying neutral (as Spethmann wishes to) in the face of such a racial and social crisis. It made me want to read more about this period of Russian history. Any other good novels out there about it?
on 20 June 2009
'Clever and exciting thriller' is written on the cover, I would hardly agree. Zugzwang is very much of a let down.Psychoanalist Otto Spethmann finds himself in danger in St Petersburg in the troubled time of the few years left before the revolution, after the police gets interested in some of his clients who might or might not be implicated in treason, betrayals and murder plots.There is little credibility in the story, the different story lines are not carefully brought to an end.By the time the book stops there are still answers and explanations we haven't had and there is a strong sense of 'wrapping it up roundly so as to finish ' without bothering too much about plotlines.And I must say that I found the dialogue between Spethmann and his daughter hard to take. This is , let us remind ourselves, 1914. I think that even today, quite a few girls would find it hard to answer their father, questioning them about their love life ' It wasn't love it was just sex!' As for an 18-year-old using that sort of language to her father at the onset of the first world war well, I can't say that I could easily take it in my stride.
A swift-moving page turner of a thriller. Set in St Petersburg in March 1914 it is a rich mixture, expertly stirred, of psychoanalysis, of chess games, and of the political scene (the antisemitic Black Hundred, the Okhrana, the oppressed Poles in general and Polish Jews in particular, the Social Revolutionaries, Bolsheviks and Anarchists, the looming war with Germany); of different members of the security services playing different games; of murders; of blackmail; of the love of fathers for daughters who do not confide in them; of a steamy and very explicit sex-scene. The main dénouement, some way from the end, is very ingenious and makes sense of one aspect that had struck me as unlikely until that point. But, typical for this kind of novel, there are more twists and turns in the remaining pages, just to show how inventive the author can be, though they involve more leisurely discussions at moments of intense crisis than one would have thought the characters would have found time for.
The Zugzwang of the title refers to position in chess in which a player is forced to make a move he does not want to make, and of course this is the position in which several of the characters - and even Tsarist Russia - find themselves.
on 7 July 2013
Zugzwang moves along at quick clip, the story laced with intrigue and twists. The historical context of St Petersburg in 1914, and its various conspiracies and revolutionary plots, forms a nice backdrop to the story without dominating the narrative. The characterisation is well realised, if a little clichéd at times, and whilst the writing is engaging and plot intricate, the tale felt a little over-contrived, with various, complex inter-relations between several characters and interweaving subplots. This is partly a result of Bennett seemingly trying to position every major character in a position of Zugzwang (a position in chess in which a player is obliged to move, but every move available will only make his position worse). One nice touch is the inclusion of a chess game (including a picture of the board, the positions of the pieces and the moves) between Spethmann and his friend, Kopelzon, that mirrors Spethmann's movement through the plot. Overall, an enjoyable, if melodramatic, page-turner with an interesting backdrop.
on 1 February 2013
I first picked this book up in a charity shop years ago, and bought it as a cheap time-filler. Since then I've read it loads of times, but still love it. Recently downloaded the Kindle version. A few typos, and the chess game descriptions slightly interfere with fluidity of reading, but on the whole not bad at all. Definitely recommend this book.
on 5 March 2010
Having been to what was then Leningrd in the 60s, I found this book brought back memories of the city, but it was interesting to feel the difference in atmosphere created by the author. And the language in which it was written captured the sense of the times. The relationship twist was surprising as was the end. A good read
on 7 March 2013
A very enjoyable book-- no chess knowledge required, so don't be put off: it is really about revolution and romance.
on 3 February 2009
The story opens on a winter's morning in March 1914, we are in St Petersburg and people are going about their daily business. One among them, newspaper editor O.V Gulko, is suddenly accosted by two young men, one shoots him and runs off, his accomplice follows having first made sure Gulko is dead by stabbing him several times. Who were the perpetrators, were they German agents, radical Socialists or members of the fanatical Black Hundreds? In revolutionary Russia the political scene is complex and confused and nothing is as it seems.
Our narrator is Dr Otto Spethmann, a widower and somewhat self-important but well-connected psychoanalyst, with a teenage daughter and a long list of well-known patients and friends, which includes Gregory Petrov, a young revolutionary, the beautiful Anna Petrovna who has more than captured his imagination, and chess genius and genuinely mixed-up kid, Rozental. The bourgeoisie and intelligentsia, even Tsar Nicholas himself, are looking forward to the start of the imminent chess championships, for which some of the world's greatest players are in town, and Rozental is the favourite of many to win. If that is not enough, Spethmann is involved in a lengthy, intermittent game of chess with Kopelzon, acclaimed Polish concert violinist and friend, who has asked Spethmann to do whatever he can to enable Rozental to play in the tournament.
Back on the streets, which the Tsar still rules with an iron fist, the poor and hungry are becoming ever more restless and militant and the tension between secret police and Bolsheviks erupts daily into violence and bombings. Following a second murder, Spethmann is visited and quizzed by police Inspector Lychev, a surprise which quickly turns to worry for both himself and his daughter Catherine. There follows a trail of suspicion, intrigue, murder, deception and betrayal that rips along from first to last.
This is St Petersburg during brilliant and troubled times and Bennett portrays the contrast very well. On a personal level, as Spethmann's game of chess with Kopelzon approaches Zugzwang so do the events in his life and, as in the game, he begins to evaluate each new situation he encounters, examining his options before making his next move until, finally, there are no moves left.
We have all the ingredients then for a classic thriller, which is exactly what this is, masterfully crafted by Bennett. He handles twists and turns with consummate ease, brings fresh characters into play who always add more layers to the puzzle and never lets the suspense fade or the pace drop.
It is the proverbial page-turner.
Maybe it's the setting - pre-revolutionary Russia on the eve of the First World War, or maybe it's the writing style - rather episodic and rushed and with no real depth in the characterisation, but I was disappointed with this, the latest thriller from Ronan Bennett. The murders stack up and there is some love interest along with a set of confusing Russian names and an ongoing chess game which I found surprisingly enthralling. I wish I could say the same for the plot. The title is one of the most interesting things about this novel, but as that has already been explained by every other reviewer, I won't go through it again.
I found this novel heavy-going and the love interest seemed unconvincing. In contrast to his wonderful IRA thriller The Second Prison, or the exciting and eviscerating The Catastrophist, which is set in the Congo, Zugzwang is run-of-the-mill. He's a better writer than this novel suggests.