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I like to read classics, historical fiction and world lit. Oh and I love short stories.


De schaakmachine / the Chess Machine (Robert Löhr)

De schaakmachine - Robert Löhr, Henriette van Weerdt-Schellekens The Chess Machine - Robert Löhr, Anthea Bell, Robert Löhr

I really wanted to like this book. Robert Löhr chooses unexpected, off-the-beaten-track subjects for his historical fiction. Unconventional and obscure historical events are right up my alley, so this novel promised to be a blast. Sadly, the book did not deliver.

This was Löhr's debut novel and it shows. He didn't get the pacing right, nor was he able to give his characters any depth. The story revolves around a mechanical chess machine. The first machine able to think and play chess - or that's what everyone believes. In reality, it's all a hoax. Inside hides a man who controls the machine and plays the games. The story has all the elements for a great thriller: a mysterious machine with a secret, its ambitious "inventor" ready to defend the secret at all costs, the people around him trying to uncover said secret. It has spies, murder and jealous lovers. And yet Löhr doesn't construct this exiting story in a skillful way, resulting in a flat, unexciting novel about a dwarf in a cabinet.

All characters are cardboard cut-outs whose actions you can see coming from miles away. Their emotional journeys are not fleshed out. I was especially disappointed with the shallow treatment of Tibor, the main character. He had so much good things going for him that would make for an interesting character, but Löhr didn't take any opportunity to give him any depth or any believable quality. There's no sense of personal journey about Tibor, even though the author clearly intended for him to have one. If and when the author describes some changes in his character, they seem to come out of nowhere, as there's no build-up.


For instance, Tibor is a de facto prisoner when staying with Kempelen. He cannot leave the house for fear that someone might see him and guess the machine is a hoax. Yet, there's absolutely no sense of the claustrophobic quality of his stay whatsoever. There's never any mention of Tibor feeling locked-up. In fact, most of the scenes describe him sneaking out in a ridiculous disguise to have random adventures whenever Kempelen isn't home. Then all of a sudden, Tibor makes a spare key so he can go out whenever he likes and he "doesn't have to feel locked up anymore". I didn't get the impression at all that he disliked being indoors all the time, so why should he make a copy of the key?

Other elements that aren't fleshed out are his elation that for once he isn't shunned for his appearance, but that he's the celebrated center of attention; the build-up of his relations with Jacob and Elise is non-existent. On top of that, his religious journey completely unbelievable, almost slap-stick, and his sexual encounters are really random and serve no purpose (would the publishers have pushed Löhr to put in more of them, because "sex sells"?).

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In short: just about any element in the book that could have given it an interesting dynamic and could have pulled a reader in.

Because of the poor characterization, there's next to no tension. The events are recounted, but the characters do not seem affected at all. A shame, as this novel leaves me with regret for what could have been a brilliant story.