Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Better Late Than Zugzwang

I've heard about patients falling in love with their psychoanalysts, but my case is somewhat different. I've fallen for a psychoanalyst who is 1.) a fictional creation and 2.) lived his fictional life in St. Petersburg in 1914, just before the Russian Revolution.

is the fifth novel by Irish writer Ronan Bennett, whose last book, The Catastrophist, I called "a splendidly stylish thriller, chronicled with the dark energy of Joseph Conrad and the cool irony of Graham Greene." Bennett's latest is about Dr. Otto Spethmann, Jewish by birth but not by religion -- although he does remember fondly the challah which his father, a Polish baker, used to bring home. Spethmann claims to be above the political violence and racial hatred ripping Russia apart, but that doesn't last long.

Zugzwang (which came out last fall from Bloomsbury, fueled no doubt by infusions of Harry Potter cash, and which for reasons too boring to list I've just gotten around to read -- in one sitting) 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. Spethmann plays a mean game of chess, mostly against his famous musician friend, and has just accepted as a patient the troubled Polish-Jewish chess genius who is expected to win the World Championship in St. Petersburg.

The book begins with two apparently unrelated murders -- of a leading liberal newspaper editor and a radical young poet. There's a shrewd police inspector called Mintimer Lychev, a wealthy and anti-semitic thug called The Mountain, two daughters in distress (Otto's and The Mountain's, who is Spethmann's patient and lover) and several Communist Party terrorists who kill each other more often than they destroy their stated foes. One very nice touch is the offhand mention of a Georgian named Dzhugashvili, a senior member of the Party hierarchy. That was the birth name of Stalin.

Another reason to love Zugzwang is the fact that Bennett -- influenced by Dickens and Wilkie Collins -- decided to write the novel as a weekly serial. What a concept! "I wrote the first two chapters quite quickly and liked them, then contacted The Observer and said, would they be interested? It was on a whim, really," he says. The London paper loved the idea, as did his agent and then Bloomsbury.

The rest is history -- and great fun.

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