For his first novel, accomplished German author and playwright Robert Löhr spins a remarkable yarn from an obscure historical incident. In 1770, Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen revealed a clockwork device called the Mechanical Turk. It was a chess-playing automaton or at least was presented as such. In reality, it was a clever bit of gears and controls beneath the wooden façade of a stern Turkish chess master (about which Edgar Allen Poe writes in this essay, having witnessed the Turk many years later).
In The Chess Machine, Löhr uses that stone to produce a 300-page soup of deception, ambition, lust, loyalty, prejudice, and faith—with a touch of murder. The lead character is the man within the machine, the brilliant Tibor Scardanelli. Tibor’s religious worldview frames most the drama. When he is first offered a job as the automaton’s mind, he refuses it, citing the commandment to avoid false witness. Within a day his circumstances become so desperate that he runs to find Kempelen to accept the offer. From that point on, Tibor, a dwarf who had lived as an outcast of society, has to become non-existent, because no one can know that Kempelen has been associating with a man who could fit inside his new chess machine.
When he arrives at the workshop which is to be his entire world for several months, Tibor meets another outcast working with Kempelen, a Jew named Jakob whose woodcarving gives the Turk its mystic aura. The three men are a wild success everywhere they perform, which stirs up envy among the mechanicians who know it can’t be done and fear from priests and parishioners who believe it’s of the devil. The deception grows dangerous when a beautiful woman dies while alone with the machine. That’s more of a teaser than you’ll get from the video created by the book’s Dutch publisher.
Tibor causes the most trouble for himself when he sneaks away from Kempelen’s in-house arrest to breathe the wild air of the world. One time he gets caught up in a Viennese masquerade party. Another time he takes refuge with a somewhat deranged sculptor. In both cases, he is carried away by the lust of the flesh and deeply troubled by his sin. This is the most realistic conflict Löhr describes. Tibor is powerless over his sin, and he pleads for God’s absolution. Yet even while he prays, one time, his thoughts turn salacious. Horrified at himself, he stabs his legs with carving tools, hoping to pay for God’s forgiveness. I wish I could say he learned that forgiveness was already bought for him through Jesus Christ, but the story ends ambivalent on this point—perhaps leaving his faith at an altar, perhaps only leaving one faith tradition for another.
The Chess Machine winds up slowly and spins a dramatic finish. It isn’t a safe book (thinking of Association of Christian Retailer guidelines), but it is enjoyable and smart. Translator Anthea Bell did an excellent job bringing this work to English.