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Zugzwang: A Novel Hardcover – Bargain Price, October 30, 2007
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This month's Book With Buzz: "Stranger in the House" by Shari Lapena
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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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*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
Top customer reviews
Kopelzon and Rozental and Semevsky and Spethmann and Lychev and Yastrebov and Medem and Mintimer. Oh, that's right, Mintimer is Lychev's other name. The main character is a shrink who sleeps with one his patients, and is faintly insufferable- in fact no one in the book evokes much sympathy. And, as others have pointed out, some of the diagrams with the chess problem running the length of the book are wrong. This zugzwang theme is the point of the book(if there is a point) and it gets stuffed up. The author has the final say on these things after checking the publishers proofs, so perhaps Bennett has kicked an own goal.
"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? Otto is bewildered by the inexplicable intrigue that has thrown his formerly predictable life into turmoil.
Another complication ensues when Otto falls in love with his patient, the beautiful and enticing Anna Ziatdinov. Besides the inappropriate nature of such a relationship from a professional standpoint, Otto has reason to fear Anna's father, Peter Arseneyevich Zinnurov (known as the Mountain), an influential and wealthy industrialist and a rabid anti-Semite. Zinnurov would be less than thrilled if he knew that his married daughter was having a torrid affair with her Jewish therapist. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that almost every major player is hiding something. More lives will be lost and reputations will be ruined by the time all of the secrets are at last revealed.
Bennett is an intelligent and thoughtful writer who vividly recreates the chaos of St. Petersburg during a period when it was difficult to distinguish friend from foe. Although the tsar, along with his ministers and generals, believed that heavily repressive tactics would keep the protesters from gaining power, the government's methods galvanized the opposition and sowed the seeds of the monarchy's destruction. As Spethmann says, "They could tighten the chains: they could arrest, imprison, persecute, and denounce.... It would make no difference.... Rage and numbers will tell."
"Zugzwang" is an intricate and at times confusing thriller in which chess figures prominently. As he struggles to keep his daughter and himself alive and well, Spethmann plays a cutthroat chess match with his friend, Kopelzon. The match may interest chess aficionados for the mental challenge that it presents. However, it is also a metaphor for the bitter confrontations between the various factions jockeying for supremacy. Only the most cunning and ruthless will ultimately prevail. The over-the-top conclusion is, alas, inferior to the book's tantalizing opening. Bennett loses control of events; too many implausible twists and turns mar the novel's final pages. Still, this well-researched work of historical fiction is worth reading for its vivid account of a conflict that left an indelible mark on twentieth century Europe.
Most recent customer reviews
I won't repeat here E. Bukowsky's outstanding summary: I couldn't add anything meaningful to it, and it would take up unnecessary...Read more
Well researched setting of St.Read more