There are so many good ideas in this book you can forgive the flaws. Loosely based on actual events, The Secrets of the Chess Machine tells the story of the Baron Von Kempelen, who is challenged by the Hapsburg Empress, Maria Theresia to invent something marvellous. The result is the Mechanical Turk, an unbeatable chess-playing automaton. Kempelen is part scientist, part conman and, of course, the Mechanical Turk is nothing but an outrageous hoax. Hidden behind the gears and clockwork is Tibor, an Italian dwarf of deep religious conviction and astonishing chess-playing abilities. A social outcast rotting in a Venetian dungeon, Tibor is persuaded to overlook his religion and utilise his God-given talents in order to fool audiences throughout the Empire.
The story takes place in Eighteenth Century Europe at the height of the Enlightenment, and it’s choc-a-block with ideas about illusion and reality, mind-body dualism, and the roles of God, man, the mind and machines.
Robert Löhr, is a trained journalist who has also worked as a screenplay writer, and both skills are evident here. One glimpses the journalist in the descriptions of the clockwork and the chess games, which are precise, even overly-detailed. The scenes switch of points of view suddenly; there are shifts from past to present and back again; many of the transitions are awkward, more cinematic than novelistic; here one encounters the screenplay writer.
And yet, the characters are engaging, human and compassionate, without ever becoming caricatures. The mystery is secondary, and still it remains interesting. Löhr’s knowledge of the material and the age is impressive. One gets the sense that his first concern is the history behind the Turk, the philosophy that underlies its appearance, and the issues of the times, which makes this implausible fiction a worthy read.
The Secrets of the Chess Machine, Robert Löhr, (Translated by Anthea Bell), Penguin.
Review first published in The Courier-Mail in 2007.