In 1770, the Viennese court was held in thrall by the exploits of the Mechanical Turk, a chess playing automaton. His creator was Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen. The Mechanical Turk was a royal sensation and even embarked on a tour to better display his prowess. From such historical basis, author Robert Lohr ( and ably translated by Anthea Bell) has crafted a historical novel about the Turk and his creator, von Kempelen. It is now a well accepted fact that the automaton was a clever hoax but not much is known of the person behind the Turk. Where it deviates from historical fact is a murder for which the Turk comes under suspicion. If that were not bad enough, the hapless victim is the Baroness Ibolya Jesenak , von Kempelen’s former lover. Naturally it is the Turk and Von Kempelen, who fall under much suspicion.
Lohr distinguishes his novel by the rich imagery and vivid details with which he infuses his prose. Viennese court life and life of the nobility in Pressburg (now known as Bratislava) are skillfully depicted. He captured my attention immediately with the wealth of details with which he presents his story. Even more than the period details however, what really captured me was the theme of struggle between science and religion which was of foremost concern during those times. Von Kempelen (the Pressburg Promethus, as Lohr cleverly calls him), the creator of the machine was indisputably at the forefront of a movement which threatened the religious institution. A great deal of the frenzied prosecution directed against him stemmed from the fear on the part of the religious institution that he represented a great, if not mortal, danger to the institution. For the clergy, “the chess playing Turk represented a presumption in the face of God’s creation.” A gauntlet thrown with such audacity must be addressed in no uncertain terms. There is a particularly wonderful passage in the book which perfectly captures this mighty struggle. It is the scene where von Kempelen is summoned by the Primate of Hungary and Archbishop of Gran (or the Pressburg Zeus to von Kempelen’s Promethus). They enter into a duel of words where Promethus is forced to defend his thinking automaton before Zeus. If only for this part alone, the book is elevated above the usual run of the mill historical fiction.