Coming soon.....

What I'm reading now: If the Dead Rise Not (Bernie Gunther Novels) by Phillip Kerr

Sunday, February 24, 2008


As a fan of Dr. Zhivago I was thrilled to receive this book as Christmas gift. What could be better than a tale of intrigue set on 1914’s Russia.? Centered on the practice and unique patients of Dr. Otto Spethmann, a premier psychologist with no particular political affiliations, the story delves deep into the intricacies of the political climate in pre-communist Russia. Dr. Spethmann’s most important patients are Anna Petrovna, daughter of lethal business mogul Peter Zinnurov; Gregory Petrov, a wanted Bolshevik terrorist; and Avrom Rozental, a famous but troubled Jewish world champion chess player. Dr. Spethmann also counts among his friends one Rueven Kopelzon, a famous Polish violinist who introduced Spethmann to Rozental, asking him to help the chess master prior to the impending chess championships. Did you get all that?

Zugzwang: A Novel starts out well: Inspector Lychev, of the Russian police brings a young Bolshevik’s preserved head to Dr. Spethmann and his daughter, the police are convinced that Spethmann harbored the fugitive before his untimely death. Spethmann has no idea who the man is but his daughter, Catherine, soon admits she was briefly his lover and was unaware the young man was a terrorist. From this point on Spethmann is dragged into a complex series of conflicts, between Bolsheviks and the Tsar, between the Okhrana secret service and the Russian police, between Polish Jews and the racist Russian society. He also begins a love affair with his patient Anna, much to the chagrin of her father, who abhors the idea that she is seeing a phsycologist, and a Jewish one at that! Throughout the book Mr. Bennett illustrates an ongoing correspondence game of chess between Spethmann and Kopelzon, which the musician believes can only end in zugzwang, a position in chess where “a player is reduced to a state of utter helplessness”, but which Spethmann is determined to win; it is an obvious analogy to the conflict that is unfolding.

To be perfectly blunt this book was downright confusing! I’m even getting lost trying to explain it all. It is a fascinating portrait of the times and is no doubt meticulously researched, but I felt like I had to keep a running diary of all the people involved, especially when it turns out a number of them are double agents. In the end I gave up trying to keep track of all the allegiances and just focused on the general story, which is probably less crime fiction, more historical thriller. To really follow this book you’ll need a primer on Russian history, it may be less confusing that way. Still, the characters are wonderful, I especially loved the dynamic between Spethmann and his daughter and the parallel relationship of Zinnurov and Anna. Both fathers desperately want to understand and control their independent daughters; Spethmann however, looks at his concerns through the eyes of a psychologist and knows it to be impossible. I should also mention that this book contains the most explicit sex scene I have read in a book yet, and I just finished a book that revolved around the prostitution scene in Asia! All in all if you are looking for scandal and intrigue and are willing to brave a complex series of characters and story lines I would recommend Zugzwang. For those who like things a little more cut, dry, and hard-boiled I’d take a pass.

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