In 1770, the court of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria-Hungary was held spellbound by the first demonstration of the Turk, a revolutionary automaton which could not only play chess against a human opponent, but usually won. Soon afterwards, however, the machine’s creator, Wolfgang von Kempelen, became strangely reluctant to exhibit it, and the Turk was not seen again until it returned for a triumphal tour of Europe in 1783. Only many years after Kempelen’s death was the machine’s secret revealed: it had been a dwarf in a box all along.
And now it is around these threads of history that the journalist and screenwriter Robert Löhr has chosen to weave his first novel, which was published in German last year and now appears in a translation by Anthea Bell. In Löhr’s imagined version of events, the tale begins when Tibor, an itinerant dwarf and chess genius, is thrown into prison on a trumped-up charge. He is visited in his cell by the mysterious Kempelen, who offers him a job as the brains inside the Turk.
Initially horrified by the planned deception, Tibor changes his mind the next day when he accidentally kills a Venetian merchant and needs Kempelen’s help to skip town. After some teething problems, Tibor and Kempelen successfully present the Turk at court, before jealous onlookers and tensions among the fraudsters finally bring