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Long before Deep Blue, the chess-playing IBM computer, beat Gary Kasparov, there was the Mechanical Turk, a chess-playing automaton that held the courts of 18th-century Europe in thrall. Invented by Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen, the Turk was an apparatus of springs, cogwheels, cables, and cylinders clothed in Turkish robes that made the seemingly impossible leap of cognition -- a thinking machine with an unbeaten record in the Game of Kings against the best chess masters of Europe. But this was all an illusion, of course. For within the cabinet of the mechanism was hidden an unseen operator -- a well-kept secret that went unrevealed until the baron's death.
From these historical facts, Löhr has conjured a fascinating historical novel to match the audacity of the original invention. The Chess Machine imagines a chess-playing Italian dwarf, Tibor, as the operator, and an old Jewish artisan as the builder. All goes well, until a beautiful and seductive countess dies -- under mysterious circumstances -- in the presence of the Turk. To sustain the grand illusion, some will pay dearly, and some will pay with their lives.
The Chess Machine is a magical first novel about courtly life, class, and religion -- and of one social pariah, Tibor, a God-fearing, chess-playing dwarf who embodies the shadow and terror of the very society that shuns him.
(Fall 2007 Selection)
Despite the excitement and the humor, a surprising poignancy runs beneath this story. Löhr never weighs down The Chess Machine with any ponderous meditation, but he keeps hinting at the harrowing implications of modernity, the metaphysical effect of our technological illusions.
The Washington Post
German writer Löhr resurrects a chess-playing automaton in his generously imagined debut novel. Set in 1770, Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen of Hungary, anxious to win the favor of Empress Maria Theresia, builds an engineering marvel: the Mechanical Turk, a chess-playing automaton. The Turk, though, isn't exactly as it seems; hidden inside is Italian chess prodigy (and dwarf) Tibor Scardenelli, hired by Kempelen to secretly control the contraption during its debut match in front of the empress. Tibor, a devout Catholic, is hesitant to partake in the scam and insists he will quit after the match. The game goes off without a glitch, but Court Mechanician Frederich Knaus is suspicious of the Turk and convinces his lover, Galatea, to spy on Kempelen. Tension mounts as the Turk gains notoriety and is requested to perform at a ball celebrating the union of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. Tibor agrees to a repeat performance (at a higher fee), but when a baroness is found dead after the match and traces of her rouge are found on the Turk, rumors of the "Curse of the Turk" spread and may be Kempelen's undoing. Though the narrative could use a light pruning, Löhr's eye for period detail and cast of eccentrics create an immersive and mirthful experience. (July)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
If you liked Perfume you'll love it. . . . [The Chess Machine] will grip you from the very first page.
A promising debut.
Magnificenta thinking man's thriller brimming with politics both social and sexual.
Rich in detail and psychological depth, this historical novel of 18th-century Europe has plenty of contemporary resonance for American readers. German journalist Lohr's debut novel is based on a true story of deception, during a period when society was enamored with the previously unimagined possibilities of technology. A minor nobleman in the Viennese court, Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen witnesses the queen's infatuation with automatons that can accomplish basic tasks. A charlatan at heart, Kempelen promises that, within six months, he can construct an automaton that will play chess at the highest levels. Such a thinking machine clearly presages the computer, but the baron has neither the ingenuity nor the intent to meet the challenge. Instead, he happens upon an Italian dwarf who is a chess master (but whose size makes him vulnerable to attacks from those who play or bet against him). Though the dwarf is also a devout Christian, uncomfortable with the deception that the baron's scheme requires, the baron coerces him into secreting his tiny frame into the chess-playing machine that Kempelen is building. Billed as the Mechanical Turk, a dark master from the inscrutable East, the chess-playing automaton becomes the rage across Europe, though at least one rival for the queen's favor suspects the subterfuge. There's an undercurrent of ethnic tension throughout the novel, with the exotic Turk, the Christian dwarf, the amoral Kempelen and his Jewish assistant embodying distinctions of class and religion, while the attempts to penetrate the secrets of the automaton result in espionage, deception, seduction and perhaps murder. Ultimately, the major characters seem to be enacting a real-life gameof chess, one in which winning or losing has the most serious consequences. In the author's notes that end the novel, Lohr explains what is based on historical record and what he has invented, but this is a work of such marvelously creative imagination that it makes little difference what's factual and what isn't-it all rings true.