cover image The Chess Machine

The Chess Machine

Robert Lohr, , trans. f rom the german by Anthea Bell. . Penguin Press, $24.95 (344pp) ISBN 978-1-59420-126-4

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)