The idea of chess being used as a central and unending metaphor in a narrative is not an original one. The links are obvious and the structure is clear. Life is about strategy and staying several moves ahead of the opposition is crucial. Pawns are expendable and with careful play, the good guy, or at least the cleverest will win in the end.
But if one were to penetrate deeper into the fundamental psychology of the game things get a little more messy and a lot more interesting. If the game is played with enough skill, it can even manipulate our most basic preconceptions. Seemingly the easiest contrasts then become blurred: the ‘innocents’ become the guilty, friendships and loyalty itself becomes unstable; the ‘good guys’ aren’t always good and the right move may not even be possible in the end. The wrong move may in fact be the only one.
Ronan Bennet’s latest offering Zugswang plays with its central protagonist in just this unsettling way. Derived from the German chess term, ‘Zugswang’ defines a position in which a player is obliged to move, but every possible option reduces his position further and only makes the situation worse. Bennet is at pains to make the reader aware of this fatally frustrating position, underlining that the player in question “is reduced to a state of utter helplessness”. It’s where Hitchcock meets Joseph Conrad and a complex historical backdrop provides a rich and glamorous world in which the characters frantically search for safety and the truth.
Bennett, who grew up in Northern Ireland during ‘the troubles’, has been described as an author whose work is characterised by “an insistent political engagement”. Unsurprising, perhaps, given that he saw the inside of British jails (including the infamous Long Kesh) twice on charges that were overturned on appeal or dropped. He is the author of novels including The Catastrophist, and Havoc in its Third Year, as well as a number of screen-plays and work for television including The Hamburg Cell and Rebel Heart. Ronan Bennett was kind enough to answer questions for Three Monkeys (via email) for the following interview:
TMO: The success or readability of a novel can be dictated by several factors. If a book is too long it can drag. If it is too short, it can leave the reader unsatisfied and compromise the integrity of the narrative. Your most recent novel, Zugzwang has a particularly interesting starting point in that it was first published in serialised form. With the pressures of having to keep the audience entertained on a regular and prolonged basis, therefore, how difficult was it to turn a story that depended on constant cliff-hangers into an actual novel?
When I came to revise the manuscript for publication as a novel, I found myself dissatisfied with the serialization. I thought the first half stood up pretty well – no surprise; it’s easier to set a novel up than to tie it all together – but that the plot started to drift after that. I never plan the narrative in advance; I tend to trust in inspiration striking when I need it, thinking on my feet if you like. In normal circumstances, this works, at least for me. There’s time to revise, to work on the novel’s internal logical and consistency. But obviously not in a long piece of work being written and published weekly. Revising the manuscript of Zugzwang was about correcting poor choices, smoothing out the narrative, giving the characters space to breathe while retaining the pace and excitement of the original
TMO: You adopted the metaphor of chess and pursued it almost doggedly throughout the novel. You include actual diagrams in the story, which not only remind the reader of the metaphor, but physically insist upon it as a central theme. You indeed begin the novel with quite an assertive definition of the title, Zugzwang, describing it as “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.” What was it about chess in particular that attracted you?
Chess fascinates and absorbs me, as it has many writers: Nabakov, Zweig, Koestler, to name just a few. Chess has some kind of metaphysical quality, something dark, intense and sometimes faintly sinister. For the novelist it is rich in metaphor and its ambiguous depths are attractive. But as with any preoccupation it can be hard to convey its allure to the unconverted (there are days when I think it is pointless, a dreadful waste of time and mental effort).
With Zugzwang my starting point – more than 20 years ago – was the story of Akiba Rubinstein, which I read in the introduction to a collection of his games. Before the First World War, Rubinstein was one of the strongest chess players in the world. He was brought up by pious but impoverished Jewish grandparents and spoke only Hebrew and Yiddish until around the age of 20. Rubinstein grew up pathologically shy. A contemporary observed how, immediately after making his move, he would leave the chess table and hide, so as not to inflict his odious presence on his opponent. I found this terribly poignant and Rubinstein and his tragic life stayed with me.
My feeling is that you should always write about what moves you – the challenge being, of course, that you have to make what’s interesting to you interesting to others.
TMO: What interested me when reading the book was your insistence on lyrical, or dare I say romantic presence. The novel is set in 1914 St. Petersburg in a world teetering between Russian decadence, threats of Bolshevism and the anti-Semitic rhetoric on the eve of the First World War. This is a dramatic setting to say the least, added to which is the tragic character of Spethman’s patient and lover, Anna in which traces of Karenina can be seen. The landscape in which the reader finds themselves is often nothing short of fantastic and yet you once said in an interview for the Guardian that you “couldn’t justify” to yourself “writing a novel unless it had political relevance”, that your fiction had “to be about more than aesthetics, more than character, and even more than the ‘human condition’”. How difficult in your opinion is it to reconcile the fantasy of fiction with the ‘realness” of reality, especially when it involves such uncomfortable politics? Are you, in other words, ever tempted when writing fiction to simply run away with the glamour of it all?
I don’t find it difficult. To me it’s natural, it’s all about the intersection between the political and the personal, bread and roses – this is my subject. Don’t get me wrong, the aesthetic side can’t be short-changed, but writing fiction that is involved in the real world is essential, to me anyway.
TMO: Paul Laity wrote a very interesting piece on you in the Guardian entitled ‘The Controversialist’ in which he describes your own account of your experiences in Long Kesh Prison as a young man. A prisoner once said to you that novels were nothing but ‘bourgeois nonsense’. Is it true that you then gave up reading fiction for a decade? What made you start reading it again, and what value (if any) did you find on returning to that &squo;bourgeois nonsense’?
Yes, it’s true. It was a particular time and place. What I found on returning to fiction – I started with Greene – was the “roses” part of the equation (I already knew about the “bread”). In Long Kesh it wasn’t done to talk about yourself; there was something infinitely more important going on – a fierce political struggle. In the particular circumstances of Long Kesh, novelists’ preoccupations with the personal -mortality and love and death – could easily seem trite or irrelevant. Obviously I don’t believe that now, though my concern as a novelist is to marry those personal preoccupations with political ones.
TMO: You have received some mixed reviews for Zugzwang, one of which described it as falling short of ‘the standard Mr. Bennett’, referring to The Catastrophist which enjoyed overwhelming success and critical acclaim. Damien da Costa in one review of Zugzwang commented that it only falls short “if you assume” that you were “aiming beyond entertainment”. How does the need to express uncomfortable political realities sit with entertainment in your view?
I wanted to have some fun with Zugzwang. I wanted to write something set in the past that drew parallels with the present – see especially the novel’s concluding paragraph. Some reviewers saw what I was trying to do; some, apparently like Damien da Costa – I didn’t see this review – missed it. If stand-up comedy has taught us anything, it’s that there’s nothing incompatible with entertainment and politics.
TMO: St. Petersburg is an interesting choice. Was there any particular attraction that moved you to choose it as the location for the narrative setting?
Its monumentalism, and, in 1914, its position as the centre of revolutionary activity in Russia.
TMO: Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, in an interview with Sean Wilsey, said: “Often the opinions we assume to be our own turn out on closer inspection to be nothing but the parroting of theirs [contemporary media].It is chilling to think that in many instances we view the world through the media and speak to each other in the words of the media. The only thing we can do sometimes to avoid straying into such a sealed labyrinth, is to do down alone into a deep well the way the protagonist Watnabe does: to recover one’s own point of view, one’s own language. This is not an easy thing to do, of course, and sometimes it involves danger. The job of the novelist, perhaps, is to act as a seasoned guide to such dangerous journeys”. It seems a quote particularly pertinent to the Eagleton Amis affair, on which you’ve written both as a novelist and journalist. What do you think of the role Murakami gives the novelist?
The novelist is a highly privileged citizen because s/he has a public voice. Obviously, I think that voice should be raised in support of those who are attacked, marginalized and demonized.
Let’s talk a little about the difference between novels and film. As a writer who has had considerable critical acclaim both as a novelist and a screenwriter, what do you think of the following quote from Paul Auster: “Over the generations, countless people have predicted the death of the novel. Yet I believe that written stories will continue to survive because they answer an essential human need. I think movies might disappear before the novel disappears, because the novel is really one of the only places in the world where two strangers can meet on terms of absolute intimacy. The reader and the writer make the book together.”
I love watching movies and I love reading novels. I could give up the former but not the latter. I agree with Auster when he says novels answer an essential human need. That was what I was trying to say when I talked about rediscovering fiction after Long Kesh. When I read Greene, I wasn’t so interested in his plots. What resonated so powerfully in me was his understanding of the human condition. Rushdie has said that when we write, we write out of our best selves. I think that when we read, we can sometimes glimpse our best selves too.
TMO: The first word that is usually used to describe you, as a writer, is Irish. Is that something you’re comfortable with, a useful tag to place your work in context, or is it simply lazy journalism?
But it’s true. I’m Irish and I’m a writer. But beyond that unexceptional and very unhelpful statement, I don’t really know what it means. I would say that my preoccupations as a novelist are intrinsically linked to my upbringing in Belfast during the Troubles – and perhaps the most prominent of these preoccupations is this dilemma: what does the just man/woman do in times of injustice? This question recurs in The Catastrophist, Havoc, in its Third Year, and Zugzwang. It’s the question St Paul asked: what do we do? I think my interest in this question can be traced back to the Belfast of the Troubles, when people had to make their choices. But I don’t live in Ireland any more; I have spent half my life in London. I remain fascinated by Ireland, but the world is a big, big place. There are other stories, and I have no interest in writing about priests.
Your central protagonist is a gentle, apolitical psychoanalyst who becomes unwittingly embroiled in murder and political intrigue. He is caught between insurrectionists and, the state and the secret police. These are quite heavy circumstances for someone to find themselves in, especially if all they want is a quiet life. Forgive the cliché question, but how much of yourself is reflected in this flawed hero?
I’m neither gentle nor apolitical.
TMO: Finally, as a reader, rather than a writer, what kind of novels does Ronan Bennett like?
I need to feel that the writer knows more than me.
Zugzwang by Ronan Bennett is published by Bloomsbury