Sunday, November 18, 2007

Zugzwang, by Ronan Bennett

This novel was a free download from Overdrive Audio through the Alachua County Public Library. It was 8 hours and 28 minutes long, and was narrated by Stephen Lang.

A real chess geek would recognize the term, zugzwang, but the general public would have to run to a dictionary. In chess, it is a position in which you are compelled to move, but that doing so leads to your loss. When you have no good moves, and you wish you could pass, that is zugzwang.

And that is the metaphor for this book, set in 1914 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Revolution is afoot, and there is a big chess tournament in town. The greatest players in the world are on hand, and one of them needs professional help. Rozental is a brilliant player, but he is socially challenged and schizophrenic. An admirer named Kopelzon, a great violinist, takes Rozental to his friend, Otto Spethmann, a psychiatrist and our protagonist. All three men are Jews in a time when Jewishness is a handicap.

As if Rozental does not have enough problems, he is also being used as an unwitting pawn in a plot to assassinate Czar Nicolas, who will be honoring the winner. There are enough twists and odd characters in this story to keep your mind busy, and it is a story that is well told, for the most part. What makes this especially interesting to the chess geek is that Rozental is a thinly veiled version of Akiba Rubenstein, a chess master of the era who was a certifiable nut case. The tournament is real, and the plot is foiled; the better to preserve Czar Nicolas' date with destiny in 1918.

Spethmann works to uncover the source of Rozental's mental illness, as well as the plot that involves his patient, his friend, and his daughter, who has been sleeping with Bolsheviks. There is a lot going on here, including Spethmann's affair with the daughter of a powerful political leader, and a little gratuitous sex that seems out of place for the story. Nonetheless, this gets 3 stars, and even a non-chess player could enjoy it.

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