By Ronan Bennett
Bloomsbury, 273 pages, $24.95
The protagonists of Ronan Bennett’s novels are dispassionate thinkers dragged into political commitment by the sublime forces of history. In The Catastrophist, Mr. Bennett’s 1997 breakthrough thriller, novelist James Gillespie followed his lover, an engagé reporter for an Italian communist newspaper, to the Congo on assignment to cover Patrice Lumumba’s rise to power in 1959.
Their lovers’ quarrel over whether writers are morally obliged take sides in politics (“When,” asks Gillespie, “has involvement with a cause—any cause—ever been good for a writer?”) hinted that Mr. Bennett’s ambition was to return the political thriller to literary relevance. The Catastrophist created the atmosphere of insoluble moral conflict and universal conspiracy familiar to readers of John le Carré—but without asking them to sacrifice character and style on the altar of plot.
In Zugzwang, Mr. Bennett’s fifth novel, our hero of noirish indifference is Otto Spethmann, Russian-Jewish psychoanalyst, and the impending historical tidal wave is the Russian Revolution. Spethmann’s hardest case is Avrom Chilowicz Rozental, a Polish-Jewish chess genius whose Yiddish accent and provincial ways mercilessly remind Spethmann of his own parents’ rejection of their Jewish identity in exchange for advancement up the ranks of St. Petersburg society.
Rozental is Spethmann in a distorting mirror: His itinerant chess career has disappointed his parents, who hoped he would put his intellectual gifts to use at home in the shtetl. But nor can Rozental survive in the wider world: He’s preoccupied with chess problems even as Russian society collapses around him.
His skill at chess makes him famous across Europe, and to some a symbol of hope for the persecuted Jews of Poland and Russia. But Rozental’s disintegrating mental state makes him vulnerable to exploitation by the forces of revolution and reaction that would explode decisively in 1917, leaving Spethmann as his only protector.
As in The Catastrophist, Mr. Bennett has done his homework to get the time and place just right. Demimonde St. Petersburg teems with poets and revolutionaries. And Spethmann exhibits the sensitivity, but also the foibles of the psychoanalyst (“Does it help you solve the fundamental problem of your life?” he asks one patient. “Which is what?” “I don’t know, you won’t tell me.”)
Zugzwang falls short of the standard Mr. Bennett set with The Catastrophist, but only if you assume he’s aiming beyond entertainment: Even when the new novel founders on the shoals of genre that The Catastrophist so gracefully avoided, it’s still irresistible.
In fact, Mr. Bennett plots his tale of suspense so densely that I’d spoil it by saying anything else. So I’ll simply list here some key ingredients, in random order: a pickled head in a jar; two-faced opportunists in the service of committed Party apparatchiks; sex scenes rendered as though by a 14-year-old boy; and, of course, “zugzwang”—a chess position in which a player has no satisfactory options.
Not the makings of a great novel, perhaps, but add it all together, and—almost by force of logic—you get a seriously fine thriller.
Damian Da Costa is on the staff of The Observer. He can be reached at email@example.com.