Dec/Jan 2008

CHESS FRET

Scott Bradfield


Ronan Bennett’s fifth novel, Zugzwang, is populated by double agents, doppel­gängers, counterpropagandists, agents provocateurs, and assassination conspirators so numerous and mutually entangled that you can’t tell them apart without two scorecards—one for their real iden­tities, another for their false ones. The protagonist, Otto Spethmann (Nabokovian punsters, take note), is a Freudian psychoanalyst accustomed to dealing in such dualities. The son of a Jewish baker in prerevolutionary Saint Petersburg, he has learned to sweep Yiddish under the rug, live in a wealthier neighborhood, and eat fluffier bread. He has also developed a sixth sense for digging into his patients’ murky dreams to uncover repressed emotions and primal scenes. It’s important, he thinks, to reconcile yourself with the person you used to be. Whether you like that former person or not.

The one thing that seems consistent to Spethmann about people—whether czarists or revolutionaries, hack businessmen or ladies of leisure—is their infinite capacity to dissemble. And after a famous journalist and a not-so-famous radical are murdered, Spethmann finds his daughter and himself under investigation by a bewildering variety of concerned parties. On the one hand, the police seem to think she is concealing knowledge about a victim. On the other, there are people who look and act like cops who seem to think she’s up to something even worse. But whether the agents are members of the Okhrana (the czar’s secret service) or the Bolshevik secret council, their methods are brutally similar. And while Spethmann labors to uncover the deepest secrets of his daughter’s implication in a conspiracy, the “authorities” (of both government and revolution) labor to uncover him. Everybody’s dreams come under investigation. And in the various relationships that develop, repression always cuts both ways.

It’s a Hitchcockian premise, delivered with all the narrative skill and conviction of Brian Moore or Graham Greene (the two novelists to whom Bennett is most often, and most justifiably, compared). At the heart of the conspiracy lies the 1914 Saint Petersburg Chess Tournament—the winner of which will enjoy a special one-on-one opportunity to murder the czar. As the days and weeks tick past, and revolutionary mobs agitate in the streets and on the docks, the weirdly complicated assassination plot takes shape, believable or not. The trick for Spethmann isn’t in figuring out what is supposed to happen, but in identifying who wants to do such a crazy thing, and why. Everybody’s got big dreams—but only Spethmann knows (or thinks he knows) how to read them.

If his excellent novels are any indication, Bennett is not a big proponent of dreaming. In fact, there’s nothing more dangerous in the political worlds he envisions—from the colluding African nationalists and colonial administrators of The Catastrophist (1998) to the 1630s inquisitions of Havoc, in Its Third Year (2004). Bennett’s bad guys are often happily subservient to dreams, theories, autocracies of meaning, and vast aesthetic notions of what the perfect universe should look like. The problem for his more likable protagonists lies in how they might best live their thoroughly mortal (and deeply sensual) lives amid so many Big Ideas—whether pertaining to godly order, revolutionary doctrine, or government decree. If a person’s not careful, he or she might easily get caught in the headlights of somebody else’s vision—dressed up to look like pure rationality and common sense—coming straight at them down the road like an 18-wheeler.

Bennett is an unusually convincing novelist—especially these days, when the self-conscious quirkiness of most fiction often feels meretricious. And unlike many of the proponents of “story” as some sort of solution to worldly woes, he seems to believe that the world is actually possessed by too much narrative—and he isn’t afraid to make his characters pursue it into unpleasant regions. It’s impossible to read him without thinking of Moore and Greene, yes, but his work will also remind readers of other books that deserve renewed attention, such as Hans Koning’s The Revolutionary, Simenon’s The Stain on the Snow, and even Conrad’s Under Western Eyes.

Bennett’s most sympathetic characters either distrust ideology or learn to, and Spethmann is no exception. Recognizing dreams to be nothing better than strategies of avoidance, he is perfectly attuned to examining other people’s visions from the outside. Until, like many Bennett characters, he is dragged into the dirty world he thought was beneath him: He becomes suspected of things he didn’t do. He goes to jail. His life and his daughter’s are threatened. He isn’t much better than the world, after all. He’s mired in it.

It’s no accident that the central metaphor of this first-rate book is chess—or that the central pawn in everybody’s game is one of Spethmann’s patients, a Jewish chess master. (Bennett, incidentally, cowrites a daily chess column in The Guardian.) For as this novel progresses, and the manipulative human games multiply, the various competing systems of rationality begin to look increasingly irrational and macabre. Conspirators get lost in their labyrinthine plots, crimes are never solved but only initiate further crimes, and the most crucial psychological mysteries untangled by Spethmann start entangling him. The “zugzwang”—that point in a game when one player gets caught in an endlessly indefensible position—never offers a clear conclusion or a rational out. From there follows a perpetual attrition, until even the supposed winners feel like losers. And the losers just don’t care what happens to them anymore. “I seem to be surrounded by just men,” Spethmann realizes, late in the book. He knows they’re “just,” because he finds them “all so terrifying.”

But then it’s the eve of the revolution, and everything’s about to change. Funny thing is, when the shooting’s over? All the same people will be in charge.

Scott Bradfield’s recent books include Good Girl Wants It Bad (2004) and Hot Animal Love: Tales of Modern Romance (2005), both from Carroll & Graf.

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