I enjoy books which use a game of chess as a central metaphor on which to build the plot of the novel and not that many come to mind. The Royal Game by Stefan Zweig of course and Miniature Man by r.muir (the mysteriously anonymous lower case r.muir) and now into my hands Zugzwang by Ronan Bennett. Each time I read one of these I belatedly think, should have got the chess set out and followed that properly, because the moves on the board usually cleverly reflect the plot in some way and it's easy to miss from the flat, square, cross-hatched images on the page.
I enjoyed but, if I'm honest, wasn't bowled over by Ronan Bennett's fourth novel Havoc in its Third Year, I think I missed something and whatever it was I can't now find out, because that was in the days pre-blog when, if I'd spent money on a novel in hardback it went straight back onto Amazon to fund the next one. Now I keep in case I need to refer back, as often happens.
Firstly there's a helpful explanation about the title,
'Zugwang : chess term derived from the German Zug (move) and Zwang (compulsion, obligation).It is used to describe a position in which a player is reduced to a state of utter helplessness. He is obliged to move, but every move only makes his position even worse.'
I'm to be transported back to St Petersburg in 1914 by all accounts and treachery, murder, psychoanalysts and a chess genius ' on the verge of a complete breakdown who must now play the most important tournament of his life.'
Spethmann, the psychoanalyst broods over his own chessboard and suddenly I wanted to brood over mine as well.
First find the thing and with no will to face the ascent into the loft I was suddenly awash with the memory of my brother's miniature travelling chess set long vanished.
It came in a small red box, tiny pieces but we played on it endlessly. Please don't get the impression that I'm a Grand Master, more a Mewling Infant where chess is concerned. Not a jot of game plan strategy enters my head as I struggle to remember to move knights up two and across one and bishops diagonally and rooks up and down. But suddenly I HAD to have a little book-sized chess set at my side to accompany my read of Zugzwang, to throw the boards and pieces on the page into sharp relief before my eyes, and so imagine my delight at finding the exact same set on eBay for a mere £2.
Only so much Russian angst I can cope with at one time, but once I have recovered from Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith, Zugzwang will fill the Russian reading slot and battle will commence. I'm intrigued to see just how this adds to my enjoyment and interpretation of the book and whether I then recommend that every copy is issued with prescribed chess set, if I haven't gone chess-crazy by the end that is.