The Chess Machine
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Vienna, 1770: The Enlightenment is in full swing and scientific and technological wonders are beginning to capture the public imagination. But, in many ways, it is still a credulous age immersed in superstition and hungry for the miracles that religion once supplied. Into such a world steps Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen, a minor member of the Habsburg court with major ambitions to impress the empress and earn himself lasting fame and fortune. When a writing machine is unveiled to much applause and amazement, Kempelen promises to produce an invention that will make all the current technology look like wind-up toys. Thus Kempelen begins work on the amazing chess machine, a thinking automaton, the mechanical Turk.
Kempelen has, of course, promised more than he can realistically hope to deliver. But his desire for fame impels him to create if not a real chess-playing machine then the illusion of one. When he hears of a brilliant imprisoned chess-playing dwarf, Tibor Scardanelli, Kempelen recruits Tibor to secretly operate his machine from the inside. Their Faustian bargain: Tibor gets out of one jail and into another, compromising his Catholic faith (“Thou shalt not bear false witness”) and helping Kempelen to deceive the crowds who throng to watch the mechanical Turk (the machine is painted by Kempelen’s caustic Jewish assistant to look like a “Mussulman”) vanquish all comers.
All goes according to plan, with the Turk easily dispatching opponents and performing impressively in front of the empress, defeating Friedrich Knaus, the Court Mechanician, whom Kempelen hopes to displace. But then the jilted Baroness Iboyla threatens to expose the illusion. After a drunken exploration of the Turk’s amorous powers, she is killed when Tibor accidentally strikes her. Kempelen makes it look like a suicide, but the baroness’s brother, Baron Andrássy, suspects foul play and challenges Kempelen to a duel, forcing the inventor to walk a high wire between illusion and reality, fame and disgrace, life and death, for the remainder of the novel.
Based on a bizarre true story, The Chess Machine is an extended meditation of the early stages of modernity, as religious faith begins to give way to scientific progress and a more materialistic worldview. Seen in this light, Kempelen becomes a kind of huckster Prometheus, offering technological wonders that seem to appropriate godly powers. Tibor, on the other hand, is devout and objects to the Turk’s deceptions on precisely religious grounds—that it is an offense against God and a breaking of the commandment forbidding bearing false witness. He alone of all the major characters has a strong conscience and feels a terrible remorse for Baroness Ibolya’s death. That such a figure should become the human engine of the farcical automaton is one of the novel’s richer ironies.
The Chess Machine may also be read as an innovative exploration of the age-old tenet that things are not always what they seem. The novel spins a fascinating web of deceptions as virtually all the major characters engage is some form of dishonesty or betrayal. Indeed, the relationship between truth and illusion is central to the novel—not only as it is embodied in the Turk, but also in the duplicitous interactions between the characters, all of whom either support the illusion or are compelled to expose it.
Robert Löhr was born in Berlin, and grew up there and in Bremen and Santa Barbara, California. After school, he trained as a journalist and worked for several newspapers. He went on to become a screenwriter at the German Film and Television Academy. He writes for movies and television as well as for the theater, and works part time as an actor, director, and puppeteer. The Chess Machine is his first novel.
- How did you discover the chess machine? What prompted you to write a novel about it?
- Tibor is surely one of the most unusual heroes in recent fiction—a dwarf who is a brilliant chess player, a devout Catholic, fiercely loyal, fearless in the face of danger, and possessed of a much stronger sense of right and wrong than anyone else, with the possible exception of Baron Andrássy, in the book. How did you conceive and develop his character?
- Deception, illusion, betrayal, and dishonesty in all its forms occur throughout The Chess Machine with great frequency. What is the role of deception in the novel, as you conceived it?
- How would you describe the dance between historical fact and literary imagination that takes place in writing a work of historical fiction?
- Why did you choose to cast the conversation between Kempelen and the archbishop as a philosophical dialogue between Zeus and Prometheus?
- A reviewer for The Washington Post suggested that Kempelen is a cross between Dr. Frankenstein and P. T. Barnum. Does that seem a fair description to you? How do you think of Kempelen?
- What is your sense of how the novel resonates with contemporary America, or with contemporary Germany? Do you see many parallels between our time and the late eighteenth century in Europe?
- How has your work as a screenwriter and actor influence your writing of The Chess Machine? Did you find it difficult to write a novel after writing for the stage and screen?
In 1995, in university, I visited a class on Physicality in Postmodern Science Fiction and wrote my paper comparing the depiction of androids, robots, and replicants in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner) and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s novella The Sandman. During research on artificial humans in history, I stumbled across the infamous Chess Turk, and the topic wouldn’t let me go. Ten years later, after a lot of research on Wolfgang von Kempelen and his inventions, the novel was written and published.
As Wolfgang von Kempelen is a typical figure of the Enlightenment—ambitious, intellectual, and a Freemason with few bonds to the Church—I wanted to create a strong counterpart with Tibor. I found it appealing to give a machine that is hailed as the most important invention for decades to come a “brain” that is deeply rooted in Catholicism, prejudice, and superstition. Only in the course of the story does Tibor realize he has been clinging to values that have always made life hard for outcasts like he is himself.
When one writes a novel about the “biggest hoax of the eighteenth century,” it is apparent that deception has to play a strong role in it. But in those days, shortly before the demise of monarchies all over Europe, deception was, especially at court, an implicit and day-to-day way of dealing with one another, so Kempelen would have had much less inhibitions about tricking the empress with a false automaton.
It is fascinating that only Tibor and Baron Andrássy—probably the most likeable and the most abominable character—are the only ones who are honest throughout the story.
This is a tough question for every writer of historical fiction. In the end, even the term “historical fiction” seems a contradiction in terms: either it’s historical or it’s fiction. In opposition to many of my fellow writers, I rather tend to serve the fictitious side, for my major objective is to create a readable novel. Prior to writing, I do months and months of research—many of the best and the most incredulous ideas come from research—but if history is in the way of a good story, I bend history. And hope not to break it!
References to figures of the Greek and Roman mythology (as opposed to biblical figures) were a strong trait in Rococo art and literature. No wonder Kempelen was sometimes referred to as “the modern Prometheus.” So I chose to vest this rather dry philosophical dialogue with a mythological setting: Zeus chains Prometheus to a rock to punish him for playing god. But unlike the original Prometheus, Kempelen-Prometheus manages to flee.
A brilliant combination indeed! But one must bear in mind Kempelen started off being Dr. Frankenstein—he really wanted to invent something significant, even world-shaking. Only when his “monster” the Turk became so famous did Kempelen start to tour the Continent and become more and more of a showman, neglecting his scientific studies for years to come. (There are also strong parallels to Frankenstein and many other tales of artificial humans who turn against their creator, from the Golem to Terminator.)
For me, Kempelen embodies all the virtues of the Age of Enlightenment (after all, it finally rid Europe of the Middle Ages)—with that one exception: too much brain, too little heart.
There are in fact many parallels—for example the human will to believe in scientific progress: It took some time before Hwang Woo-suks’s celebrated breakthrough discoveries in stem cell research were exposed as outright lies. Or the human fear of being replaced by robots one day, which goes back to those days of the first automatons. But the most apparent parallel is surely the Internet: In a way, Tibor is a user that hides behind the interface of the Turk to become famous and stay anonymous at the same time.
Not at all! On the contrary, writing a novel leaves you with more work but more liberties as well. And I have benefited both from screenwriting and from acting: screenwriting forces you to concentrate on the basics and write a story that will tie the reader to the book at all times, and acting helps you write credible (and hopefully witty) dialogues.
In what ways is The Chess Machine surprising? How does the author build and maintain suspense from the opening page to the very end? What sudden turns in the novel are most unexpected?
What motivates Kempelen? Why doesn’t he retire the Turk after Baroness Iboyla’s death before more misfortune befalls him?
In what ways is Tibor the moral center of the novel? What is the significance of the fact that a dwarf is the most sincerely religious character in the book?
When Tibor asks if audiences are going to believe that an automaton can play chess, Kempelen replies: “Mundus vult decipi . . . the world wants to be deceived” (p. 61). In what ways is this true? Why do people want to be deceived?
What is the effect of the novel’s narrative frame—the dramatic match between Gottfried Neumann and “the Turk” that begins the novel and is not returned to until very near the end? Why would the author choose to structure the novel is this way?
How is the entire novel like a chess match? Why is it appropriate that the final showdown should be between Tibor and Baron Andrássy? In what ways are they very much alike?
When Tibor reproaches Elise for her dishonesty and for selling herself, she hotly replies: “I sold my body, you sold your brain! What’s the difference? What makes you a better person? Is it because I lied to you? You lied as well. You lied and cheated with your machine, and just because you say your prayers, it doesn’t make you any better. You have no right to despise me” (p. 312). Is she right? Have Elise and Tibor equally compromised themselves?
Near the end of the novel, Tibor tells Elise to keep her word to Kempelen. “He’s done wrong, certainly, and he was harsh to us, but at heart he’s a good man who doesn’t deserve what threatens him” (p. 283). Is this an accurate assessment of Kempelen? Is he a good man at heart? What do his actions reveal about his character?
The archbishop asks Kempelen: “Have you ever wondered what lies at the end of all these materialistic theories? Uncertainty and chaos, murder and mayhem” (p. 189). In what ways is the novel about the dangers of materialism, of technological inventions that promise miracles but turn out to be frauds? Why would materialism lead to murder and mayhem?
Who might be considered a modern day equivalent of the highly ambitious and deeply deceptive Kempelen? In what ways is he both a product of his time and a universal character?