Irish Author Writes Pre-WWI St. Petersburg Thriller

Theme: International Thrillers 

Ireland~Ronan Bennett

zug-zwang: –noun Chess. a situation in which a player is limited to moves that cost pieces or have a damaging positional effect.

I will readily admit that after reading Nabokov’s The Defense(or the newer title, The Luzhin Defense), I am fascinated by chess novels, which almost categorically leads to a Russian novel.  With my predilection for Russian writers as well as the automatic intellectual bent of a novel using the game of chess as an allegory or metaphor, it was difficult for me for me to be subjective when the jacket cover tells me that I am going to read a novel brimming with chess, Russia and ‘whoops! I’m a psychoanalyst who is suddenly involved in a murder.’  In the case of Zugzwang by Irish novelist Ronan Bennett, we are given almost that–a novel set in St. Petersburg on the eve of World War I that follows the events in Dr. Otto Spethamnn’s life, days after he begins treating a rising star in the chess scene, Avrom Chilowicz Rozenthal.  Dr. Spethmann comes to treat Rozenthal through an introduction by his long-time friend and famous classical violinist, Kopelzon.  Already, this couldn’t get more Russian unless, of course, Spethmann treated his patients in a bread line while drinking vodka. 

Dr. Spethmann, our laconic psychoanalyst, is middle-aged man who lives with his college-age daughter after the loss of his wife a couple of years prior.  He is a good yet common man as he describes himself here:

With my patients I am the good father — attentive, kind, calm, fair, strict, unreproachful and present.  It would dismay them to discover that the man to who, the impute almost preternatural wisdom and serenity is, in reality, no more immune than they to anxiety or excitement, or other more turbulent and dangerous emotions.  But this is the truth of me.

Here is a man who spends most of his time treating his patients, pondering over his chess matches with Kopelzon (whom he has never beaten) and furtively eyeing Anna Petrovna, who just happens to be gorgeous, rich, married and his patient.  And those are just some of the major characters.  This novel is filled with characters who the reader meets over an extended period of  time of for short stints but with no less effect. 

One of the components of a good thriller is that it is not evident at the onset of the novel who is the good and who is bad–the gradations of good and evil unfold in each character throughout the novel so that it focuses on the motivation of the character as opposed to merely being an obstacle for the protagonist.  Bennett does this well and he does well while he unravels a labyrinthine, complex plot that uses the political fibers of the time effectively.  The two political fibers being Bolshevism and the Okhrana.  Bennett uses history well to set the tone and as well the proper amounts and types of description.  We get the chilling cold of the Soviet Union, the immensity of the architecture of the city, the paranoia present in an politically oppressed society. Throughout the novel, we learn that most of the people he knows are somehow involved in the war between the revolutionaries ad the repressive government, either wittingly or unwittingly.  From the beginning for instance, we know that Petrov a patient of Spethmann’s is going to factor somehow into to the story, but we don’t know how and he plays it well because we meet him in the context of a psychoanalyst’s office who is neither for or against him:

Petrov was a member of the Bolshevik faction of the Social Democrats.  The party was notorious, bare legal in Russia and subject to police surveillance and repression.  In the absence of Lenin, its exiled leader, Petrov was its de facto chief.  The strains involved in this alone would account for his mental and physical exhaustion, but in Petrov’s case there was something else.  Something tormented his soul.  He wanted to tell me, to tell someone, and yet he could not.  As with Anna, as with all my resistant patients, I had fallen back on the principal ally of psychoanalysts everywhere — time; I was never in a hurry.

This psychological element strengthened by the first-person narrative deepens the characters and their motivations without sacrificing any of the plot.  Actually, even though we may think we know the characters better, it is still difficult to guess who is going to fall on the good or bad side of morality.  Bennett introduces the relationship between Spethmann and Lychev, local police chief, immediately and shockingly by demanding to see him and his daughter for their possible connection to the murder of a man named Yastrebov who was in the possession of Spethmann’s carte de visite when he died. 

Bennett uses so well the tactical element of chess in plotting that he must be a chess player himself and a good one at that.  More fascinating though is his own history that itself reads like a international thriller.  Accused of murdering a police inspector during a bank robbery claimed by the IRA, he spent time in jail before his conviction being overturned.  He moved to London where he was accused of conspiring to cause explosions and spent more time in prison.  He defended himself and was acquitted. 

While reading his work, it did occur to me that the political and religious parallels between Ireland and the Soviet Union made his story that much more plausible.  Also, it adds a healthy dose of reality to the imprisoned musings of Spethmann since Bennett had himself endured imprisonment.   Later obtaining his degree in history, the plotting is taut and well-researched.  No wonder
The Guardian excerpted weekly each chapter form this book(it also doesn’t hurt that his wife is assistant editor).
I admit it, I got involved in finding out as much as I could about Ronan Bennett because he is so fascinating and because of the comparisons to Graham Greene which are well warranted.  Fans of Graham Greene will appreciate Bennett’s locales in his other novels as well as his direct narrative style.  I recommend reading any of his novels , but also reading about the author himself.  Two great interviews worth checking out are a 1999 interview with Salon magazine and a 2007 interview(with audio) from Morning Edition on NPR


By Ronan Bennett
Bloomsbury USA
288 pp.
ISBN: 9781596912540

Other titles of Bennett’s that have received awards or been nominated:

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