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Zugzwang: A Novel Hardcover – October 30, 2007

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA; 1st edition (October 30, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1596912537
  • ISBN-13: 978-1596912533
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 0.9 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,391,792 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Roiling with class tensions and rife with danger, St. Petersburg during the twilight of the last czar serves as the chessboard on which Irish author Bennett (The Catastrophist) stages this heady historical thriller. The game begins with a bang: the murder of prominent newspaper editor O.V. Gulko in March 1914, just weeks before the city hosts a glittering international chess tournament. (Zugzwang refers to a situation in which a player can make only moves that worsen his position.) Then there's a second slaying. Despite plenty of the usual suspects—Bolsheviks, pro-German reactionaries, Polish nationalists—the police start grilling respected psychoanalyst Otto Spethmann and his 18-year-old daughter. The widower's protestations of innocence cut little ice with his chief inquisitor, Insp. Mintimer Lychev, a mysterious sort who happens to share Spethmann's chess enthusiasm. Dr. Spethmann's only hope: using his analytic skills to crack the case. As he races the clock, he and Lychev become caught up in a high-stakes battle of wits. The plot packs more than enough surprises to keep any suspense junkie sated. (Nov.)
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* Remaining apolitical is a tall order for a Jew in 1914 Russia. The Bolsheviks are on the rise, tensions are mounting between alliance-seeking France and Germany, and acrid threats of pogrom and czarist repression linger in the air. Yet psychoanalyst Otto Spethmann prefers to stay above the fray and guard the middle-class standing he's achieved despite his humble roots. How ironic, then, that he's thrust into the midst of a murder plot involving power players across the political spectrum of prerevolution St. Petersburg. Bennett explains that his delicious title is a chess term "used to describe a position 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." That indeed appears to be Spethmann's predicament as he's stalked by the secret police, manipulated by old friends, frustrated by a treatment-resisting chess master, seduced by the daughter of a Jew-hating German sympathizer, and jailed by an overzealous policeman for refusing to reveal the real name of his daughter's dead boyfriend. Spethmann's a better chess player than even he realizes, however, and ultimately the good doctor navigates these (and many other) dangers by always thinking several moves ahead. Readers who love Anna Karenina as much as they enjoy a gripping mystery will find a little slice of heaven here. Sennett, Frank

Customer Reviews

3.7 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By E. Bukowsky HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 18, 2007
Format: Hardcover
As Ronan Bennett's "Zugzwang" opens, two assailants savagely slaughter a liberal newspaper editor named Gulko. The setting is St. Petersburg in 1914, a tumultuous and brutal year in Russian history. Tsar Nicholas II is on the throne, but the crown lies uneasily on his head. Socialist "fighting squads" roam the streets, hunting down and killing government agents; the fanatical Black Hundreds regularly attack the revolutionaries, particularly Jews, whom they detest; and the wealthy go about their business, enjoying fine food and entertainment as if society were not collapsing around them. 1914 was also the year of a celebrated chess tournament that attracted the greatest players in the world.

"Zugzwang," is a chess term that describes "a position in which a player is reduced to a state of utter helplessness." It also describes the condition in which the first person narrator, Dr. Otto Spethmann, finds himself. Otto is a psychoanalyst living in St. Petersburg who has long since renounced Judaism. A widower, he lives with his rebellious eighteen-year-old daughter Catherine, treats patients, and enjoys outings with his good friend, the celebrated Polish violinist, R. M. Kopelzon. His placid existence is unexpectedly shattered when a policeman named Lychev angrily grills him about the identity of a young man named Yastrebov, whom Otto has never met. As if this were not disturbing enough, two intruders burst into Otto's office, question him mockingly, and steal the file of Avrom Chilowicz Rozental, a mentally unstable but brilliant chess player. Why would these thugs be interested in Rozental, a harmless but emotionally unstable individual who is totally uninterested in anything but chess?
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Michael Johnson on November 6, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Zugzwang is a highly entertaining thriller set in St Petersberg in 1914. An important part of the narrative is a chess game played by the two major characters. The game is documented in the usual way (Bennett's day job is chess correspondent for the Guardian) and the reader is helped by chess diagrams to remind us of the state of play before the next moves are discussed and played.

How irritating then to find in Chapter 21 that the diargram is wrong! Not only is is wrong but it shows an illegal position with the black king and the white queen on diagonally adjacent squares, white to move. 'Can White make further progress?' is the caption. Grrrrr! The diagram in Chapter 25 is also wrong.

The game can be followed in the text but no one of ordinary chess ability can follow the drama without getting out a chess board and laboriously following the game through to its zugzwang conclusion.

It is surprising that neither the author, publisher nor any of the reviews I have read picked up these elementary and obvious mistakes. We can only hope that they are fixed for future reprints of this otherwise super read.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By A. Ross HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 7, 2007
Format: Hardcover
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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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Hugh Claffey on December 27, 2007
Format: Hardcover
First an admission, I think Bennett is an exceptional author. His Havoc in its Third Year, and his first novel The Second Prison are fantastic. His ability to set scenes, to write convincing dialogue and to create the tension between the necessity and potential futility of taking a public stand in extraordinary circumstances are, in my view, unique.
Zugzwang, is a chess term for a state of hopelessness, a state in which no move the player takes will yield an improvement. It is a metaphor for most of Bennett's characters. This book introduces a plot centred around a chess tournament in Czarist Russia, and is unusual in that Chess positions are explicitly part of the text, and in that the book was initially serialized in the Observer newspaper.
The opening scenes of the book are excellent, the tension built chapter by terse chapter, and you can feel the instalment quality of the writing. There is a pleasing, for me, amount of characterisation, and a requisite amount of conspiracy, mystery and gunplay. However the ending is somewhat rushed and unsatisfactory, neither the complete vindication of the central character (not to be expected with Bennett), nor the more usual undermining of the characters aspirations.
This book is well worth the read, however if you are just coming to Bennett's work the other novel's mentioned above would be better places to start. One small point, as a chess novice, I would have welcomed an appendix to help with the chess move i.e.
1. e4 c5... 10 Nxd5 is code to me, I did some homework and found out how to use it.
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