Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Zugzwang by Ronan Bennett

In 1914, St. Petersburg is getting ready for the World Chess Tournament. That is not the only thing St.Petersburg is getting ready for. Russia is getting ready for the Revolution. In these tumultuous times not just Russia, the whole of Europe is gearing up for the Great War, the War to end all Wars. Psychoanalysts and Amateur chess player Dr. Septhmann unwillingly gets involved in things that force him to move, but every move he makes puts him in a worse off situation than before-Zugzwang. Not only personally, but Russia with its various factions and the whole world are in a Zugzwang.

As explained at the start of the book, Zugzwang is derived from the German, zug (move) + Zwang (compulsion, obligation) and 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.

The story starts with the death of a journalists named Gulko and another man called Alexander Yastrebov. When Russian police start enquiring Dr.Septhmann and his daughter about the murders, Septhmann confides his worries to a client named Anna who suffers from nightmares , she decides to help him by putting a word to her influential father. Her father promises to look into the matter. But despite his promise Septhmann and his daughter are arrested and briefly thrown into prison. Is his university going daughter somehow involved in these events?

There are various organisations and factions in Russia spying at each other and conspiring against one another, each with its own agenda. Okhrana, the secret police, the Socialist Party, setting the pieces for the Bolshevik Revolution and the Police with its own agenda are just a few. There is a spy in higher ranks in the Socialist party called King who is leaking out all the important moves made by them. Who is the spy? How is all this connected to a psychoanalyst and amateur chess enthusiasts Dr.Septhmann? Who is working for whom? Whom to trust? Who is conspiring with whom against whom for what purpose?

One of Dr.Septhmann's clients is Rozental, a jewish chess master, who is on the verge of a breakdown days before the Championship. Will Dr.Septhmann save the genius from breakdown and keep him sane for the game?

I don't know much about Chess, only the basic moves and about Russian history I know a bit more than I know about Chess. Considering these aspects the story did not baffle me or loose my interest. I was interested in not only what was happening to Dr. Septhmann and the game of Russian politics but also the game of chess Dr. Septhmann plays with his friend throughout the book with position of the pieces and their moves illustrated in notations and diagrams. I do think one of the notations does not match the diagram.

This is not just a book about conspiracies and spying, it also is an interesting story of romantic love and paternal love. There are numerous plot twists and the surprises keep coming. Intriguing thriller set in interesting times.

While I borrowed the book from a library, this book was published as a serial in Observer and is available online on the Newspapers website. 


TracyK said...

Very nice review. I have this book and plan to read it in the next few months, so I am glad you liked it.

srivalli said...

Thanks Tracy! It is an interesting book, hope you would love it too.