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Turk2Each year I make a point of reading at least a book in French and one in Spanish, so I don’t lose touch with either language. This year my French choice* fell on a 1926 novel by Henri Mazuel-Dupuy, Le Joueur D’Échecs – that is to say, The Chess Player.

I had never heard of Mazuel-Dupuy until I read this review on Movies, Silently. The story of hussars and automata seemed quite intriguing in its absurdity, and I have a thing for Polish history… But alas, because of region coding, there is no way I can watch the movie, so I contented myself by doing a very small amount of research.

What I found is interesting. For one thing, the eccentric Baron von Kempelen really

Wolfgang von Kempelen - The Turkish Chess Player

lived a colourful life in XVIII Century Hungary, France, Russia, Austria, Prussia and Poland. He really built clever machines, among which the Turk, a chess-playing  automaton, was the most famous. Indeed, the thing became more famous than its creator liked, and toured Europe and America, soundly beating (or not) assorted chess-masters and sovereigns well after Kempelen’s death, when it was acquired by a musician called Mälzel. The reason why Kempelen was not wild about his automaton’s popularity is that it was not an automaton. The machine was operated by a thoroughly human chess-player hidden inside the workings. I guess that Kempelen had begun it all as an elaborate charade and, when the Turk became enormously famous, it was too late to admit the hoax…

Turk3The second thing I discovered is that, although the story was debunked in the end (Edgar Allan Poe was one very vocal skeptic), it remained popular enough to reach the stage in 1845, and then fiction in 1926, when French novelist Henri Mazuel-Dupuy wrote a story combining von Kempelen’s Turk with the  failed Polish insurrection of 1776. I’ll admit, the tale of a clever hoax running away with its maker’s intentions becomes a lot more exciting when the man inside the machine is a wounded and wanted rebel – who also happens to be a master at chess…

Mazuel-Dupuy’s Kempelen is a half-mad visionary who makes wonderful automata Turk4and delights in duping the world with his illusions. When his adopted Polish son, a rather fierce young hot-head, tries his hand at insurrection against the Russians and fails, the good Baron takes his games a step too far. Quietly smuggling the boy to safety? Why, never! Let us hide him inside the Turk, instead, and parade the thing across half the Empire. At least it won’t be dull.** Add in a Polish heroine who is not quite that, a moody dancer, a noble-hearted Russian Prince, a capricious and vengeful Catherine the Great, a lustful villain, a touch of sorcery – and you’ll have a… what exactly?

I’m told Le Joueur d’Échecs qualifies as science-fiction because of the automata – in spite of the key one not being the real thing. It certainly has a strong component of historical fiction, what with the many historical characters appearing, and the botched insurrection. It also has more than its fair share of (purplishly written) romance, and at one point Cagliostro waltzes in to add a touch of fantasy…

On the whole it’s not surprising that it was made into a movie not once, but twice and a half. One is the 1927 silent I told you about. Then there is the talkie version of 1938, with Conrad Veidt playing the eccentric baron. And at some point in the Seventies there was an episode of the French TV series Les évasions celèbres.***

Well, an adventure it is, and a decidedly unusual one, at that. And you know what? Le Joueur d’Échecs is nothing to take too seriously, but on the whole, the genre salad, silly plot, cheerful leaps of logic and unintentionally outrageous characters – together with a certain flair for fantastical description – make for an amusing read. If I ever get to see the silent, I’ll let you know.

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* And never mind the Italian title in the picture of the book cover. This was yet another find – and I must confess I was surprised to discover the book was translated at all…

** I really, really love how  the Baron, after putting poor, wounded Boleslas
through all sorts of dangers, discomforts and harrowing experiences for
no clear reason, airily comments on how unhinged the dear boy has become…

*** In this one, though, the oppressors are the Prussians, and the heroic Lieutenant is a complete stranger Baron von K. takes in and saves, rather than his beloved adopted son.

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