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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Chess Machine by Robert Löhr

The Chess Machine by Robert Löhr, translated by Anthea Bell. New York: The Penguin Press, 2007. ISBN: 978-1-59420-126-4

First, let me congratulate the translator, as her work is superb. I never once even noticed, or realized I was reading a translation until now, when I began typing the bibliographic information.

Almost everyone has heard of the “Mechanical Turk,” a chess-playing automaton from the late 18th century, when automata on a much smaller scale were immensely popular—little twittering birds, dolls, clocks, and other various mechanical figures. The Turk, a larger than human-sized figure, actually played chess, and defeated almost all challengers.

It was a hoax, of course. A human being is concealed inside the cabinet, and operates the mechanical man mechanically. This historical novel chronicles the early years of the automaton, it's maker, the Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen, and the dwarf Löhr invents to be its first inside operator. Nothing much is known about this early period in the automaton's existence, so Löhr is free to imagine it as he pleases.

Which he does, very successfully, and inventively. He creates real people, with real emotions, motivations, and interactions, and has us, his readers, completely caught up in the story, which seems almost entirely believable, although the author admits in his note at the end, that von Kempelen probably wouldn't have stooped to covering up a murder just to further his career, as he portrays him doing in the novel. In the story, it is the Turk itself that commits the murder (assisted by his manipulator, of course).

There, in one sentence, I've referred to the automaton as both “itself” and “him.” I'll admit, I did it deliberately, since even though there is no doubt of the Turk's completely mechanical and false nature in the story, the device does manage to take on a kind of personality.

This is not, perhaps, a masterpiece of literature, but it is a good, solid, historical novel, and will be enjoyed by anyone who is interested in mechanical devices, hoaxes, and the like. Definitely recommended.


  • Well... that's quiet interessting but honestly i have a hard time visualizing it... wonder how others think about this..

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:20 PM  

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