Voltaire’s Calligrapher & the automatons

with commentary by Ralph Dumain

Santis, Pablo de. Voltaire’s Calligrapher: a Novel, translated by Lisa Carter. New York: Harper Perennial, 2010. 149 pp. (Original Spanish publication, 2001.) See also the publisher’s page with sample (chapters 1-3).


PART I: The Hanged Man
The Relic (3)
First Letters (6)
Ferney  (10)
The Correspondence (15)
The Passenger (19)
Toulouse (22)
The Scene of the Crime (25)
The Mechanical Hand (29)
The Performance (33)
The Exam (37)
The Bronze Bell (42)
The Execution (45)
PART II: The Bishop
The Abbot’s Hand (51)
A Friend of V. (56)
Siccard House (61)
Von Knepper’s Trail (65)
The Bishop’s Silence (69)
Kolm’s Walking Stick (72)
Clarissa (75)
The Prisoner (78)
The Burial Chamber (82)
Taps on the Window (86)
Fabres’ Disciple (89)
Mathilde’s Foot (93)
Flight (97)
The End of the Trip (100)
PART III: The Master Calligrapher
The Wait (105)
Anonymous Libel (110)
The Human Machine (115)
The Halifax Gibbet (120)
The Life of Statues (125)
A Blank Page (129)
Hammer and Chisel (132)
The Locked Door (136)
Silas Darel (139)
Hieroglyphic (142)
Inventory (145)
The Marble Head (148)

Description on the back cover:

Dalessius is twenty when he comes to work for one of the Enlightenment’s most famous minds, the author and philosopher Voltaire. As the great man’s calligrapher, Dalessius becomes witness to many wonders—and finds himself in the middle of a secret battle between the malevolent remnants of the all-but-dead Dark Ages and the progressive elements of the modern age. The calligrapher’s role in this shadowy conflict will carry him to many perilous places— through the gates of sinister castles and to the doors of a bizarre bordello; toward life-and death confrontations with inventive henchmen, ingenious mechanical execution devices, poisonous fish, and murderous automatons. As the conspiracy to halt the Enlightenment’s astonishing progress intensifies, young Dalessius’s courage—as well as Voltaire’s unique cunning and wit—are put to the ultimate test as they strive to ensure the survival of the future.

The publisher also describes this as Clockpunk (Wikipedia).

The profession of calligraphy is becoming antiquated as print culture supersedes it, whose emblem is Diderot’s Encyclopédie, vehicle of the Enlightenment. Dalessius’ world is not boring; it is packed with intrigue, torture, and grisly executions, many orders of execution to which he employs his calligraphic skills. One aspect of modernization is highlighted by attempts to invent execution devices that are more efficient and ‘humane’. The descriptions allude to the invention of the guillotine, and more fancifully, execution via electrocution (pp. 121-122). The executioner Kolm examines the designs of a proto-guillotine, the ‘Halifax gibbet’:

“If it works, there’ll be no need for executioners; anyone will be able to kill. It’s a shame: us old executioners, with our knowledge and our customs, will disappear forever, replaced by clerks who simply have to pull a rope. We’ll be forgotten, like calligraphers.”

I made note, more than anything else, of the various technological innovations described in the novel and their comparison to older ‘technologies’. This passage (p. 78) reminded me of William S. Burroughs’ cut-up technique:

At the time, it was common for loose pages, found in the bookstores of Paris, to be gathered up and kept in wooden boxes until, at some point, their rightful place was found. It had recently become popular to bind these lost pages, to create a book that jumped from one topic to another.

The device that interested me the most was the prominent role of the automaton, which reached its highest state of development in the 18th century. A similar theme is pursued relative to statues. As was the case already in the 18th century, the distinction or disappearance of the distinction between autonomatons and humans already functioning robotically in their behavior is not lost on this book’s scenario.

The pages relevant to automatons are 66, 75-6, 79-80, 85, 87, 89-90, 91-2, 93, 107-8, 113-4, 119, 129, 134, 137, 141.

Dalessius seeks the master artisan of automatons, Von Knepper. This quest has its risks.

“If you knew what you were saying, you wouldn’t say it out loud. The makers of automatons have fallen from favor; rumor has it they never existed.”

She began to whisper in my ear. Her many years around clocks had given her words a regular beat, as if each syllable corresponded exactly to a fraction of time.

“Von Knepper was a disciple of Jacobo Fabres and worked with him until his death. Fabres taught him to build geese and flautists, but Von Knepper wanted to make the most difficult piece of all: a scribe. No one knows if he succeeded.” [p. 66]

Dalessius kisses what he believes to be an automaton, but it turns out to be the real Clarissa, Von Knepper’s daughter (pp. 75-6). Clarissa remarks that she thinks her father is more attached to the automaton version of herself than to the real daughter.

I asked about the young woman from Toulouse.

“Is she more beautiful than me? My father made her when I was a child: she was the future image of me. Then she was sold and passed from hand to hand; the purchasers always promised to keep her but never did, as if she were cursed. Three years ago, my father lost track of her. She’s made in my image and likeness, but while I grow old and imperceptibly wear out, she’ll never change.”

“If you two were rivals, you won. There’s nothing left of her. A secret mechanism under her tongue caused her to explode.”

“What kind of tears do you cry for a dead automaton? When my father finds out, he’ll cry real tears. He always loved her better; he thought she was more human.”

“I would never mistake a frigid automaton for a woman.”

“No? You don’t even know who I am.”

She brought her hand to my face, as if she were the one wondering about me.

“Don’t tell anyone you saw her. There are no automatons in France; there never were.” [p. 76]


“They say he’s the greatest maker of automatons in Europe.”

“He’s made a tiger and a ballerina and won over the courts of Portugal and Russia. Sometimes I thought all the time he spent around machines allowed him to discover the secret workings of the world, and his every wish was granted. But then automatons went out of style, and now my father isn’t moved by art but by greed and fear.” [pp. 79-80]

*  *  *  *  *

The tombs looked like forgotten pieces in a bygone game. I asked Clarissa if her condition really did turn her into an automaton.

“That’s just my father’s imagination. He thinks his inventions and I are related, that we share family traits.”

“But the other night I saw you completely immobile, as if you were asleep.”

“Doesn’t everyone fall absolutely still, as if struck by lightning?” she asked. I was unable to reply when she kissed me. “Who could mistake me for an automaton?”

Kolm was waiting for us outside the gate but left before we got there, flicking his hand in a gesture of exhaustion, reprimand, boredom. We hurried back to Clarissa’s. Though we had witnessed something momentous, we spoke of inconsequential things—the silly conversations sweethearts have. A light was still on when we arrived.

“My father only ever works at night. One day he’ll go blind.”

I didn’t even glance at the inventor’s window; he meant nothing to me right then. I was saying good-bye to Clarissa without knowing for how long. She was part of a mechanism of appearances and disappearances whose frequency I couldn’t predict. [p. 87]

Von Knepper reveals his history to Dalessius. Note also the allusion to binary arithmetic.

“I was seventeen when I began as Fabres’ disciple. I learned everything from him, but while my creatures were imperfect, his seemed alive. The differences weren’t visible to just anyone; it was in the subtleties a mother uses to tell one twin from another. I couldn’t seem to duplicate a human’s unconscious movement. My creatures were too self-absorbed.

“I did have a few successes and even managed to present one of my scribes before the czar. It was to write out a text consisting of one hundred and nine words in praise of the sovereign, but a faulty adjustment made it knock over the inkwell, and the only praise was an ink stain that spread out endlessly. If I was forgiven, it was only because a wise man believed the accident was a sign of the empire’s unlimited expansion.

“After that, I put scribes aside and went back to birds and ballerinas and mechanical jungles. As perfect as those toys were, my real ambition lay elsewhere. Those of us who practice this sorcery are obsessed with scribes. The stiller my creatures were, the more alive they seemed. Whenever they moved, a lifelessness would fall over them, dimming the light in their porcelain eyes, reducing them to but a ghost of a ghost.

“Only some of what we know as automaton makers is ever passed on to our disciples. The real secrets take years to come to light and may only come postmortem, like an ambiguous will that can never be clarified. When the disciple is twice what his master was, when the same thirst, the same resentment, the same hate toward the same enemies has rubbed off on him, when somehow he is now the other, only then does he learn the truth. Fabres, who taught me everything, also hid everything from me. When I approached his deathbed to hear the last line in the book he had patiently written on me, all he said was ‘You and I are automatons. What need does the world have of us?’ And then he died.

“While his other disciples eagerly awaited the reading of the will—which defrauded us all—I hoped for a letter, a paper folded in two, a new type of gear, or the drawings for a mechanism that would allow me to follow his trail once again. Instead, I received a book called De Progressione Diódica, a dissertation on the system that reduces all numbers to one and zero. I wasn’t particularly fond of math. I thought about selling the book, but it had been damaged and rebound. It was no longer of any value.” [pp. 89-90]

Von Knepper eventually picks up the annotated book and learns he can use it.

“It took me two weeks to decipher those words and the next few years to turn those ideas into reality. I learned to encode iron plates with the orders automatons need, so all you have to do is change the plate to give them new instructions.”

He handed me one; it contained a series of perforations that created a pattern I couldn’t interpret.

“There are words hidden in those holes, and now my creatures seem as alive as Fabres’. But I’ve reached a point my master never dreamed of: my creature has taken the place of a man.”

“I saw the bishop a few days ago. He was still working in the dark.”

“That’s no longer necessary. Now anyone who sees him up close, in good light, will think he’s a real man. My visits to the burial chamber are over. My automaton is more authentic than the ailing bishop, who didn’t even look like himself anymore.”

“Now that your work is done, how can you be sure they won’t kill you?”

“The machine needs constant adjustments. I’m the only one who can change the instructions, and I’ll make sure no one else knows how. I’m safe.” [pp. 91-2]

When Dalessius encountered the bishop (p. 85), he almost mistook him for an automaton.

As a result of plot developments, Dalessius’s life is in danger. Von Knepper counsels him to leave Paris.

“Anything could happen. My profession has taught me a lesson in humility: even the most perfect machines fail, and mechanisms that seem infallible stop working for no apparent reason. No one has yet invented a perpetuum mobile.” [p. 93]

When Dalessius reports back to Voltaire, Voltaire says:

“I’ve read and reread your reports, written with incomparable incompetence. Despite all the errors, I was able to come to one conclusion: the Dominicans are preparing to take advantage of the void being left by the Jesuits. They’ve concealed the bishop’s death in order to hold on to power. As long as the comedy of the automaton lasts, their hold will remain firm. They are behind the plague of miracles that’s storming France; poor Jean Calas was just one more of their victims. That’s why I need you to go back to Paris.” [pp. 107-8]

In the chapter “Anonymous Libel” we find Voltaire’s tale titled “The Bishop’s Message” (pp. 113-4), which should be read in full. A priest constructs a fully functional, speaking automaton, whose creation is reminiscent of the Golem and Frankenstein stories. The priest begins to question his achievement, asking the creature whether it might “be an instrument of Evil.” The creature always answers: “I cannot be certain of the answer in that regard.” The priest sends the creature with a letter to the archbishop asking for counsel on this matter. The priest never receives a reply, and years later, on his deathbed, a successor archbishop visits him. The priest tells his story and requests an answer, to which the archbishop replies: “I cannot be certain of the answer in that regard.”

Dalessius arranges for Von Knepper to attend a book auction to acquire the rare volume The Human Machine. Von Knepper’s bid is successful. Dalessius hopes this will work in his favor if he can find Von Knepper’s daughter Clarissa. But no:

“At least I directed you to a good deal,” I said by way of goodbye.

“This book? I know it by heart. It doesn’t interest me in the least.”

“Then why did you buy it?”

“To destroy it. The last thing a maker of automatons needs is for this sort of information to get out. Secrets must be kept.”

He threw the book, as far as he could, and it splashed into the river. [p. 119]

The plot thickens.

Von Knepper was leaning over a delicate mechanism that resembled a musical instrument: glass pegs tightened very fine strings that would make a sound at the slightest touch.

“We need to find another way to make automatons talk. The human vocal system is extremely difficult to control. The slightest imperfection and the melody of the inanimate starts to play. One day I’ll resort to magic. I once read that Hermes Trismegistus could make a statue so perfect that life was inevitable.”

“A statue that comes to life must also then die.”

“Maybe the Egyptian sorcerers watched theirs weaken and expire and abandoned the method forever. Who knows, maybe their creatures reverted to statues, only this time they were abominable, or maybe they shattered into piles of marble shards.”

I picked up a hand that was on the table and tested it. The bones were made of black wood and the joints of gold.

“I found Clarissa,” I said nonchalantly. [p. 129]

Now that he knows where she is, Dalessius goes hunting for Clarissa in Guido Mattioli’s studio. Mattioli had always been in search of the perfect model, who could remain absolutely still while he sculpted. She is so good at it that Kolm mistakes the real Clarissa for a statue, but Dalessius finds her [p. 134] . . . until she escapes among the statues.

As The Bishop’s Message is printed and hits the streets, the plethora of heresy-hunting spies get busy.

Ever since the Encyclopédie appeared, the number of these undercover agents had grown. They were the first to leap on every new release and vie for the copies. One informant didn’t know another: each believed he was the only spy in a world of innocents. There were readers trained in Athanasius Kircher’s cryptography who could decipher any code; others interpreted the pages in terms of political allegory; and the most keenly intelligent, prepared to arrive at innocence through the complexities of intellect, were charged with the literal meaning. Through one method or another, every interpreter found a hidden truth. [p. 136]

The Jesuits and Dominicans are rival interpreters. More intrigue . . .

If Von Knepper had kept his word, the other message, that brief confession, would already be engraved on a metal plate and would have taken over the automaton’s memory. [p. 137]

Kolm is preoccupied with testing his perfect execution machine. Dalessius unlocks the door to the room where Kolm is working, activating the machine, which decapitates Kolm. [p. 138]

Signac lifted the lamp, and I could see that the machine looked exactly like the illustration of the Halifax gibbet. Kolm’s body was tied to a long table. His hair and the collar of his shirt had been cut to facilitate the blade’s work. I was still holding the key that had made me the executioner’s executioner.

“Do you know what Kolm said when I explained my plan?” Signac asked with a push, forcing me to walk down the corridor. “Now anyone can be an executioner.”

Dalessius calls on the master calligrapher Silas Darel. The abbot fills Dalessius in.

“He’s writing our history,” said the abbot, who had come in quietly. “But he’s not bound by the usual rule of waiting until things have happened. He’s finished with the past and is now busy with the future. Our enemies have the Encyclopédie and the will to clarify all things; we have calligraphy and a duty to mystify the world.” [p. 140]

Dalessius is forced to write a confession.

I had finally seen the legend, and the legend was going to kill me. Slowly, as slowly as the automaton, I wrote the text the bishop was writing at the very same time before the eyes of Rome: [p. 141]


The intrigue comes to a violent denouement, which begins [p. 142]:

The envoys from Rome had read the Jesuit interpretation of The Bishop’s Message and came prepared to understand: they arrived at the palace with an escort of twenty-five men. When the signal came, when Von Knepper’s creature wrote the forty-two words dreamed up in Ferney, there was no need to ask for an explanation:

Do not look for the bishop in these hands.
I am in an unmarked grave,
With no purple or scepter,
Because an impostor has taken my place.
The abbot has written my words until now.
This time, however, I speak for myself.

This is a review only of the novel’s technical aspects of interest and their relation to the reconfiguration of practices of a society at a stage of incipient modernization, embedded in the brutal, violent, oppressive milieu of the ancien régime. Dalessius is the covert mediator between past and future, in contrast to Voltaire as engine of the Enlightenment. The French Revolution has been said to be a product of print culture, and this novel gives a flavor of that as well by way of contrast to the social role of calligraphy. The other aspect of modernization—albeit a macabre one—is the streamlining, standardization, and efficiency of the method of excecution.

In the real-world 18th century, automatons were ingenious, intricate toys constructed for the amusement of the aristocracy. Master inventor of automatons Jacques de Vaucanson was proclaimed a "new Prometheus" by Voltaire. In this novel automatons are reimagined as the connecting technological medium of a tortuous social evolution.

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Uploaded 23 August 2023

Original text ©2023 Ralph Dumain