Time and Riptide
Monday, November 19, 2007
By Ronan Bennett
Bloomsbury. 273 pp. $24.95
It is probably best to begin a review of "Zugzwang" by explaining its title. The word, the author informs us, derives from the German "zug" ("move") and "zwang" ("compulsion"), and in chess "zugzwang" is used to describe a player reduced to utter helplessness. He must move, but every move only makes his position worse. Yes, we've all felt like that, but few of us more than Otto Spethmann, the high-minded psychoanalyst at the heart of this excellent literary thriller.
We are in St. Petersburg in 1914. It's a glittering city, notable for its wealth and culture, but revolution is in the air, and bombings and assassination are everyday events. Dr. Spethmann, a widower of 49, scorns politics. His passions are his work; his 18-year-old daughter, Catherine; and Anna Petrovna, the wealthy and beautiful patient who becomes his lover. But politics will not let him be. A police detective questions him about the death of a young poet who may have been a terrorist. Spethmann knows nothing of the man, but it develops that his daughter is not as virginal as he thought; she had been the young man's lover.
Another of Spethmann's patients, Rozental, a brilliant but erratic young chess master, has come to St. Petersburg to play in an important tournament. Another patient, Petrov, a leading Bolshevik member of the Duma, is coming apart under pressures from the police. Lurking in the background is Anna's rich and sinister father, who warns the psychiatrist to stay away from his daughter. Spethmann is a Jew, and anti-Semitism is as tangible in St. Petersburg as vodka, snow and terrorism. We learn that a plot to kill the czar is afoot. We also learn that few people are what they seem; spies and double agents abound. The honorable Dr. Spethmann, fearful for his daughter's safety, tries to put things right, only to sink deeper into danger and intrigue.
All this is beautifully told by Bennett, a Belfast native who now lives in London. He gives a poignant picture of the doctor's romance with the younger, married Anna: "I wanted to kiss her the way I had kissed as a young man." But he is no longer a young man. He is a sensitive Russian caught up in troubled times: "I lived in a city built on a marsh stiffened with the bones of a hundred thousand serfs who died of starvation, disease and cruelty in its construction. In every part of the empire we lived with the Cossack, the spy and the secret policeman for our neighbors."
This is a compelling portrait of a highly civilized society as it approached one of history's great upheavals. By the end of the story, the apolitical Spethmann must confront the realities of his world: "When things reach this pitch we are all in zugzwang. Past wrongs will not be forgiven. Rage and numbers will tell." I happened to watch Gillo Pontecorvo's classic film "The Battle of Algiers" while I was reading "Zugzwang." The movie and novel make the same point: There are moments when the tides of history will not be denied.
* * *
Once, on an airplane, Norman Mailer and I got rather drunk together. It was August 1976. I was writing speeches for Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, and Mailer joined our traveling circus on a magazine assignment. As the most literate member of Carter's entourage (faint praise that), I was asked to shepherd Mailer around. His reputation preceded him -- brawler, boozer, wife-stabber, all-around friend of the devil -- but happily he was on his best behavior while with us, perhaps because the delightful Norris Church, his wife-to-be, was with him. They caught up with us at a rally in Charleston, W.Va. Soon after we met, Mailer and I bellied up to a bar where he opened a can of beer, took a healthy swig and refilled the can with whiskey. I could see that he would fit easily into the campaign ethos.
After the rally, our flight back to Georgia was delayed on the runway by fog. Hours passed, the booze on Peanut One flowed freely, and Mailer and I spent the time exchanging increasingly profound remarks about literature, politics and women. I remember best, however, a discussion we had about our daughters, and our wonder at the ease with which they could wrap strong men like ourselves around their little fingers.
We arrived safely back in Plains, where my daughter Laura, then 8, was being Amy Carter's playmate for a few days. Mailer met Laura several times. Indeed, during one riotous dinner at a roadhouse in Americus, she crawled under the table and tied his shoelaces together. Bizarre behavior is normal in south Georgia in August, even among children.
The next afternoon, before his return to New York, Mailer stopped at our table in the Best Western's dining room to say goodbye. He bowed to Laura, shook my hand, said, "My congratulations on your daughter," and departed. He was, that week in Georgia, the sweetest of men.