Imagine you’re a noble in 18th Century Europe, a time when concepts like computers, the Internet, and smart phones were as foreign as alien technology. A time of powdered wigs, white faces, corsets and carefully placed beauty spots (and not just for the ladies!) where the height of human invention was the automatons, clockwork machinery that performed tasks previously only achievable by people, such as writing and playing music. And imagine that in this world an automaton is revealed that can think for itself and play a game of chess against real opponents. This is the world in which The Secrets of the Chess Machine flourishes, illuminating the sordid secrets of Europe’s nobility and the depths they would stoop to, to be in the limelight.
The plot is based on the true story of an unbeatable chess-playing automaton named The Turk that toured Europe from 1770 to 1854, but was revealed to be a hoax in the late 1820s. In the book (as well as in real life) the creator of this “machine” is Wolfgang von Kempelen a civil servant of Empress Maria Theresia of Austria and Hungary. After seeing a magician perform at the palace, Kempelen boasts to the Empress that he could come up with a more impressive experiment, even without the former training, and she calls his bluff, giving him 6 months off to develop his invention. Kempelen has ambitions to build a speaking machine, but he soon realises that it is not achievable in the time and so he comes up with the fiendish idea of the chess machine – a contraption that appears to think and play chess but in fact will house a man controlling its actions from the inside.
To find the perfect “brain” for the chess machine Kempelen travels to Venice, and approaches a dwarf called Tibor Scardanelli, who is a gifted chess-player and is in prison for a bar fight. Tibor, a devout catholic, doesn’t initially want to be involved in the hoax but when his circumstances take a turn for the worse he approaches Kempelen and secretly travels with him to his home in Pressburg. So starts an intricate tale of deception and sin where Tibor must be kept secret but is constantly being coerced into breaking Kempelen’s rules by his assistant Jacob. The trio tour with The Turk, exhibiting it and playing against nobility and the common man alike, with relative ease, until the Countess Ibolya Jesenák – Kempelen’s former mistress – dies under suspicious circumstances in the company of The Turk. At this point the novel shifts genre from a strictly historical saga to a mystery/thriller as Kempelen and Tibor’s professional relationship shifts into ugly territory, rife with blackmail and accusations.
Löhr has a very interesting writing style, which I’m sure would have been even better in its native tongue, but as I can’t read German I am thankful for Anthea Bell‘s expert translation. His style mixes traditional story-telling devices such as conflict/resolution with unexpected metaphorical battles, such as a game of chess being described like an epic war, and a debate between Kempelen and a church representative (who believes the automaton is an unholy abomination) described as a retelling of Zeus’ punishment of Prometheus. The detailed descriptions of the chess games and various automatons were fascinating, and Löhr certainly painted a vivid picture of 18th Century Vienna, Hungary, Italy and France with his cast of over-fluffed ladies and powder-wigged dandies. Overall it was a really enjoyable read with a solid historical basis, with an addition of author notes at the end where Löhr explains the truth behind his fiction and makes clear the parts he made up. A recommendation for lovers of good historical fiction with a dash of murder and intrigue.
I give The Secrets of the Chess Machine by Robert Löhr: