In 1770, Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen introduces Vienna to the Mechanical Turk?an unbeatable chess-playing automaton that, unbeknownst to an astonished Europe, is in fact nothing more than an illusion. The Turk is actually operated from within by a God-fearing dwarf named Tibor, whose chess-playing abilities and diminutive size make him the perfect accomplice in this grand hoax. But when a seductive countess dies under mysterious circumstances in the presence of the Turk, the machine and its inventor become the target of espionage, persecution, and intrigue. Based on a true story, this celebrated debut is a daring piece of storytelling, brimming with lust, scandal, and deception.
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Anthea Bell translated E. T. A. Hoffman's The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr for Penguin Classics and has received a number of translation awards.From The Washington Post:
Reviewed by Ron Charles
In 1989, grandmaster Garry Kasparov beat the electronic pants off IBM's chess-playing computer called Deep Thought. But while Kasparov gloated, Deep Thought evolved into Deep Blue, a machine capable of evaluating more than 200 million positions a second. Eight years after their first match, Deep Blue deep-sixed Kasparov, and we basically lost control of our machines. Soon after that, computers launched a surprise nuclear attack, and a small remnant of humanity survived only by fleeing into outer space.
No -- wait -- that's "Battlestar Galactica." Our conflict against machines has been more pathetic: enslavement by BlackBerrys, iPods, an avalanche of spam, a thicket of PINs we can't remember and patronizing computers that tell us to "listen carefully because our options have changed." Indeed, our options have vanished. Resistance is futile. Most readers of Book World can remember a time when machines were stronger and faster than we were, but not smarter. The Kasparov-Deep Blue match changed all that. Newsweek called it "The Brain's Last Stand." As many as 300 million people watched the match on TV, and it inspired almost as many op-eds in things people used to read called "newspapers." Losing to a computer at chess rocked humanity's sense of superiority; it heralded the advent of machines that think.
But think on this: It all happened before, more than 200 years ago. In 1770, a brilliant engineer named Wolfgang von Kempelen presented a chess-playing automaton at the court of Maria Theresia in Vienna. The machine, constructed to look like a Turk seated before a table, dazzled the empress and caused a sensation across Europe. Crowds paid to see the Mechanical Turk beat one chess master after another. Napoleon insisted on a match. Ben Franklin sat down with the Turk and got up defeated.
It seems hard to believe such a machine was possible, but, remember, this was a time of remarkably clever inventions: clocks that could play music and reenact Bible scenes, dolls that could write notes in beautiful script, mechanical birds that could walk, eat and defecate. Never before, though, had anyone managed to create a thinking machine. Kempelen's chess-playing Turk electrified the popular imagination just as people were becoming aware of the potential and the threat of the Industrial Revolution, the extent to which machines would automate, replace, extend and finally supersede human abilities.
Except that the Mechanical Turk was a hoax: the most elaborate and successful parlor trick of the 18th and 19th centuries. And now it's the subject of a wonderful novel by German writer Robert Löhr. The Chess Machine begins with the basic historical outline of Kempelen's career, but Löhr has packed the story with his own concoction of intrigue, murder and romance.
Since almost nothing is known about the brilliant chess player who hid inside the machine and brought it to life, Löhr has invented this central character: a devout Roman Catholic dwarf named Tibor. He's a complex and sympathetic man, struggling to live a good life despite the abuse he's endured in this brutally prejudiced and superstitious culture.
When the novel opens, Kempelen discovers him in prison and offers him a lucrative but peculiar job: squeeze into a small cabinet and beat the world's greatest chess players by controlling the movements of a life-sized mannequin. Tibor knows this is a bargain with the devil, but he's desperate to disappear, so he agrees.
It's all great fun and mercifully free of any tedious chess talk (Nf3 Ka7
Nb3 b5). Having promised the Empress a dazzling exhibition within six months, Kempelen and his team must overcome all manner of obstacles, which requires as much attention to engineering as to psychology. First, of course, is how to play chess in a small, dark box that quickly heats up like an oven while controlling an automaton's movements. Half the gears and pulleys inside the machine do nothing at all except impress the skeptical audience. Even the mannequin's Muslim identity is carefully designed to excite European fears.
Löhr has spiced up Kempelen's character considerably (he apologizes in a note at the end), making him a combination of Dr. Frankenstein and P.T.
Barnum, driven to more and more nefarious methods to protect his thinking machine from court rivals, jilted lovers and offended churchmen. Each of the Turk's matches is a high-stakes gamble, not just for the money involved but the risk of exposure, which would mean ruin for Kempelen and death for Tibor. It's a grinding existence for the lonely little man, alternately boring and terrifying, as Tibor realizes he's a pawn in the hands of an increasingly psychotic master. But the machine's success becomes its own reason for continuing. "I can't give it up!" Kempelen cries. "What would people say?"
The crisis of the novel comes in an outrageous scene when a libidinous baroness tries to seduce the Mechanical Turk -- perhaps the earliest recorded example of cybersex: "She clasped the Turk's head in both her hands and kissed its wooden mouth, leaving traces of her lip rouge. She was breathing more heavily now. The Turk's eyes were positively hypnotic; the mechanism hummed a beguiling melody." Checkmate, indeed! Who can resist the beguiling melody of a humming mechanism? But the calamitous result of this union keeps Tibor enslaved by Kempelen.
Despite the excitement and the humor, a surprising poignancy runs beneath this story. Löhr never weighs down The Chess Machine with any ponderous meditation, but he keeps hinting at the harrowing implications of modernity, the metaphysical effect of our technological illusions. One night, desperate to escape Kempelen's control, Tibor sneaks out of the house on stilts and seeks solace in a church. But he's startled to realize that the fraudulent machine he brings to life has stained him with doubt:
"Only then did Tibor realize that it wasn't the church that had changed but himself. He looked at the Virgin Mary with her child, but she no longer seemed to him inviting. She was just a figure. The queen in a game of chess. A lifeless doll like the Turk." Here, Löhr suggests, is Kempelen's real legacy: disillusionment that shatters old ideals and makes us wary of new ones. Fortunately, this was the last time in history that technology tricked us with the promise of its awesome ability.
Copyright 2007, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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