BY SEAN CLARK
Author: Robert Löhr, translated from the German by Anthea Bell
Truth: Wolfgang von Kemplen was a lower-echelon Hungarian aristocrat who built a clockwork automaton of wood and iron in the late 18th century, and managed to deceive crowds of people (including luminaries like Johann Philipp Ostertag and Edgar Allen Poe) that it was a thinking machine that excelled at chess. Only years after Kemplen’s death was the secret compartment, which could hold a tiny man, revealed to the public.
Fiction: Just about everything that happens in this charming and at times gripping story about Kemplen’s machine, including the existence of Tibor, the devoutly Catholic dwarf from Italy, who excelled at chess and acted as the brain of the wonderous chess automaton.
In the novel, Kemplen enlists Jakob, a Jewish craftsman, and Tibor, a chess whiz who can fit inside the tiny compartment. Together the three men pull the wool over the eyes of an entire society. The machine, known as “the Turk,” gains notoriety quickly; as fame builds, so does pressure. You might think this would be a story about external forces pushing against a secret, trying to crack the nut, and the characters’ resistance to that. And there is some of that. But much of the dramatic tension derives from the relationship between the three men, their moral drives to keep or reveal the secret, and plenty of two-faced backstabbery.
Löhr spins a careful and balanced yarn–careful almost to a fault. The book is framed from a point in the future looking back upon the story, and this deflated some of the mystery. I would have preferred the end point not been revealed so early. However, this narrative choice doesn’t ruin the experience. The book takes enough twists and the writing provides enough oomph that it remains a compelling read without a mysterious end.
The characters are each interesting and fleshed out nicely. I was particularly fond of Jakob–a bit of a rapscallion–though I suspect many readers will take most kindly to Tibor, who I couldn’t help but imagine as Willow. What I liked best was that all three main characters were endearing, yet all three also had moments (or even whole portions of the novel) where they were complete bastards. A bit of a side note: the book can get a bit randy in points, and oddly enough, little Tibor, despite all the mocking he endures, ends up getting the most action.
Judging from the author’s note at the end and some cursory research on the Internet, this book seems to have foundation in some pretty interesting historical truths. I thought for sure the whole chess automaton thing was made up, but that turns out not to be the case. As a result, The Chess Machine is an easily recommendable work of historical fiction. Regardless of the history behind it, I found this book both engrossing and entertaining. Fans of historical fiction will surely like it, and I suspect the general reader will find this to be an enjoyable read as well. (I got the hardcover for just a few dollars, so it won’t break your bank either.)