Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ronan Bennett's "Zugzwang": Book Review.

This title's a chess term for when a player must move, but wherever the next piece shifts, the position's for the worse. An appropriate metaphor for 1914 St. Petersburg, where the Okhrana, the Tsarist thugs, battle with Bolsheviks in the streets, behind bars, and within the ranks of a corrupted police force. As a Belfast native who spent two years at Long Kesh for charges related to terrorism for his youthful participation in demonstrations, the author works best here in the realms of brutality vs. humanity under pressure-- as with "The Catastrophist" and "Havoc, in Its Third Year" (both reviewed by me on Amazon US where this review today was posted). With a Ph.D in history, Bennett also integrates vivid descriptions of places under turmoil-- the North of Ireland in "The Second Prison," Latin America in "Overthrown by Strangers," post-colonial Congo and mid-17c England in his later two novels-- with fragile protagonists who find themselves trapped by circumstance, fate, and bureaucracy.

Beginning promisingly, with a faint tone of snobbery and distance by the narrator, a psychoanalyst, Dr. Otto Spethmann, the story opens with a comparison. The city juxtaposes squalor with elegance; violence pulses beneath order.
"Just as a superficial glance at a chessboard on which a game is in progress will reveal little of the fierce struggle implicit in the arrangement of the pieces, so the tourist delighting in the treasures of the Hermitage, the glories of the Summer Gardens or the exotic wares on display at the Gostinny Dvor will likely be oblivious to the vicious currents coursing through the very streets he meanders in such innocent admiration. Of the eleven players who took part in the great tournament of 1914, only Rozental came fully to understand that cruelty and violent death were not just part of St. Petersburg in the way they are routinely in any great capital but were the very essence of a city stalked by revolution." (6-7)

A dramatic set-up, one that traps Spethmann in the machinations of spies, a lover, and his daughter's own predicament. However, as the novel's told in the first person, key scenes cannot therefore heighten the suspense as much as is needed for the plot to captivate. It's akin to watching yet another installment of a superhero movie; you know Batman will not die no matter how harsh his situation.

Not that skill's absent. Bennett works well with the one erotic scene he includes; he combines tact with detail deftly. Thoughts on how compassion for the poor and a desire to overthrow the system corrode as idealism meets realpolitik certainly continue a fictional and fact-based theme Bennett knows intimately. I liked the chess game that's illustrated as the novel progresses; otherwise, contrary to one's expectation, there's far less overlap between the chess and the rest of the story elements than the title might lead you to suppose.

The novel wraps itself up eloquently.
"What do you do if you are born into misery and deprivation? How do you look at your firstborn and not curse yourself for having brought flesh of your flesh into this place? And for those of us not born as they are, who do not know the fields of weeping, is the question any less urgent?" (269)

And, it's prescient, not only for the Soviet revolution three years later. "Rage and numbers will force the issue." Bennett's consideration of how forces of law and order rot returns to his fourth novel. No crackdown can stop the "settling of accounts." The tsar and his ministers "could tighten the chains," by persecuting and jailing. "Or they could loosen the chains," but mollification will ease no anger. "They were in zugzwang. When things reach this pitch we are all in zugzwang. Past wrongs will never be forgiven. Rage and numbers will tell."

The plight of Polish Jews, as Spethmann in his assimilated position as well as his headlong flight from his upended security comes to recall with discomfort, runs through the plot as a hushed leitmotif that might have benefitted more from prominence. The contrasts between the high life Spethmann and his circle of secularized Jewish professionals aspire to and the ghettos from which their fathers sprung remains a promising subject, but Bennett's protagonist gets so enmeshed in Tsarist-Bolshevik double-crossing, complete with guns and fists and chases, that the reader may tire of the staged action scenes. The writer means to explore a worthy clash between those who've made it and those out to get them.

On the other hand, these dueling characters get heaped up by the finale into so many coincidental collisions that this defies even the conventions of the genre. It's like an arthouse film turned megaplex thriller. So, the literary expression of this contest between coercion and revolution, repression and rebellion blurs into too many frenetic exchanges. There's not enough depth in many key characters to care enough for them. This gap between the ideas that support the Reds and their Jewish sympathizers or collaborators and the sordid realities of betrayal, bloodshed, and bluster widens, even as the characters get overwhelmed by the plot points. That being said, the hasty conclusion does hint to me of a possible sequel, which may allow some of the faults of this ambitious, if overly rushed, novel to smooth themselves out.

(P.S. Michael Johnson among other Amazon reviewers observed that there are incorrect chess moves noted. I was relieved if irritated to find this corroboration, as I kept going over the notation frustrating myself and blaming my own rudimentary knowledge for the blunders as diagrammed. This discrepancy's a minor but embarrassing flaw that should be pointed out before better chess players open these pages and follow the moves.)

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