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Löhr, Robert 1973-

Löhr, Robert 1973-

PERSONAL:

Born January 17, 1973, in Berlin, Germany. Education: Trained as a journalist at the Berliner Journalisten-Schule; trained as a scriptwriter at the Deutschen Film-und Fernsehakademie (Academy of the German Film and Television); Free University of Berlin, master's degree.

ADDRESSES:

Agent—Graf & Graf Literature and Media Agency, Mommsenstrasse 11, 10629 Berlin, Germany.

CAREER:

Writer, screenwriter, playwright, actor, puppeteer.

WRITINGS:

The Chess Machine (novel), translated by Anthea Bell, Penguin Press (New York, NY), 2007, published as The Secrets of the Chess Machine, Fig Tree (London, England), 2007.

Das Erlkönig-Manöver: Historischer Roman (historical novel), Piper (Munich, Germany; Zurich, Switzerland), 2007.

The Chess Machine has been translated into twenty-two languages.

SIDELIGHTS:

In his novel The Chess Machine, published in England as The Secrets of the Chess Machine, the German writer Robert Löhr tells the fictionalized story of an actual eighteenth-century hoax involving an automated chess machine. Developed by an engineer named Wolfgang von Kempelen, the machine looked like a Turkish man and amazed the members of Maria Theresa's court in Vienna. The "Mechanical Turk," as the machine came to be called, developed such renown that a match was set up with Benjamin Franklin. The Mechanical Turk won.

"It seems hard to believe such a machine was possible," wrote Washington Post contributor Ron Charles in a review of The Chess Machine, "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."

The Chess Machine, which a Publishers Weekly contributor called a "generously imagined debut novel," is a historical thriller featuring the automaton chess player and magic as well. Reflecting the real-life hoax that had even Napoleon challenging the machine, the automaton is actually inhabited by an Italian dwarf named Tibor Scardanelli. Kempelen achieves international fame through the hoax, but when his former lover dies in a fall from a balcony, the Mechanical Turk becomes a prime suspect in what may be a murder. As a result, according to a contributor to the Life Is Too Short to Read Bad Books Web site, "the machine and his inventor become the targets of espionage, persecution, and aristocratic intrigue." In addition, Scardanelli, who is a devout Catholic, agreed to do the hoax only after Kempelen rescued him from prison. His moral standards eventually lead Scardanelli to tell Kempelen that he wants no more part in the hoax. Kempelen, however, threatens Scardanelli into staying with the con, noting that Scardanelli could otherwise face imprisonment.

"The story touches on a number of potentially rewarding themes," commented C.J. Schüler in the London Independent. "Chess has provided a powerful motif in fiction from Alice in Wonderland to Nabokov and Zweig, and its imagery is intelligently deployed here." Schüler noted that the author also explores the major theme of artificial intelligence and what constitutes human consciousness.

As the story unfolds, Kempelen finds himself unable to leave the Mechanical Turk behind, even as it is leading him to apparent doom. The Life Is Too Short to Read Bad Books Web site contributor explained: "The dead woman's brother wished revenge. His [Kempelen's] wife begged him to give up the chess machine. A rival machinist, still stung by his loss to The Turk, planted a spy in von Kempelen's household to ferret out the secret of the chess automaton. Tibor was tired and his engineer wanted to leave his employ as well. But von Kempelen would not stop. He craved the fame and fortune that came with exhibiting The Turk. He also feared he would never be able to top it."

The Chess Machine received praise from numerous critics. Writing in the Library Journal, Karen Walton Morse noted that the characters "are well executed and sympathetic." Commenting that the novel is "rich in detail and psychological depth," a Kirkus Reviews contributor called The Chess Machine "a work of … marvelously creative imagination."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Book World, July 1, 2007, Ron Charles, review of The Chess Machine, p. 7.

Entertainment Weekly, July 13, 2007, Thom Geier, review of The Chess Machine, p. 73.

Independent (London, England), July 10, 2007, C.J. Schüler, review of The Secrets of the Chess Machine.

Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 2007, review of The Chess Machine.

Library Journal, May 1, 2007, Karen Walton Morse, review of The Chess Machine, p. 72.

Publishers Weekly, March 19, 2007, review of The Chess Machine, p. 35.

Washington Post, July 1, 2007, Ron Charles, review of The Chess Machine, p. BW07.

ONLINE

Life Is Too Short to Read Bad Books,http://thebookmarque.blogspot.com/ (December 6, 2007), review of The Chess Machine.

Penguin Books,http://www.penguin.co.uk/ (January 11, 2008), brief profile of author.

Robert Löhr Home Page,http://www.robert-loehr.de (January 11, 2008).

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