Karel Čapek

Expats.cz takes a look at this Czech author´s prose

Expats.cz Staff

Written by Expats.cz Staff Published on 25.05.2010 12:49:53 (updated on 25.05.2010) Reading time: 5 minutes

Don’t believe the hype. It wasn’t Karel Čapek who invented the word robot. It was his older brother Josef. He adapted it from the Czech noun robota (meaning heavy labour) whilst they were co-writing the play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The Čapek brothers often worked together early on in their careers, another example being the The Insect Play which was performed with great success in London and New York. Introducing Josef’s individual career as a writer and cubist painter can be saved for another day. This is a brief sketch about Karel Čapek, two years Josef’s junior, the author of an astounding array of novels, plays, journalism and biography, and the first Czech writer to be recognised internationally.

Karel was born on January 9, 1890 in Malé Svatoňovice, a village in the north of the Hradec Králové region of the Czech Republic. His father was a doctor and his mother a midwife. His older sister Helena also wrote, including a biographical memoir of her brothers. There is a museum dedicated to the family’s work in their home town. Karel attended school in Hradec Králové and Brno before graduating from Prague’s Academic High School in 1909. His student days at Charles University included semesters in Paris and Berlin and culminated with the award of a Masters degree in Philosophy in 1915.

R.U.R.. was published in 1923. The theme is familiar  –  what would happen if humans created machines to serve them, but made them so well that they revolted against their masters. You’ve seen it in I, Robot and perhaps in the animated Matrix prequels, but this was written three quarters of a century earlier, and before the idea of science fiction had been spoken of as a genre. The play is set in the robot factory and the characters involved are the directors of the company, a visiting journalist, and, towards the end, the robots themselves. The dialogue is like a rolling debate on the relationship between the humans and the robots, including all the talk of robot feelings that you get with Lieutenant Commander Data in Star Trek. But unlike Data’s electronics and positronic brain, the Čapek´s robots are made of flesh. So, akin to Edward Scissorhands but without the inclination to chop up privet hedges and ten foot high blocks of ice. Instead the robots march relentlessly to the tune of heavy labor (hence the name robot) with this work obsession eventually incorporating the destruction of the humans.

Most commentaries on the play say it’s a warning about the unfettered advance of technology and that sort of thing, but it’s more likely that the impetus for writing it was a frustration with work ethics of that time. This is indicated in the Karel Čapek Reader, which is published by Catbird Press and includes R.U.R.. plus numerous other plays, short stories and essays. One of the essays, entitled Inventions, is a homage to household gadgets such as his new vacuum cleaner, whilst in In Praise of Idleness, Čapek indicates his impatience with work for its own sake.

The Reader contains several of these feuilletons, written in a loose and chatty style about everyday subjects such as fire, cats and the frustrations of receiving a pile of junk mail in the morning. They were published as contributions to the Národ and Národní Listy newspapers and very possibly composed with a hangover in a secluded corner of Cafe Louvre.

One of the most amusing pieces of prose in the volume is called The Poet and tells of the attempts of a policeman to solicit some information about an accident on Žitná Street from some inebriated art students. Stamp Collection is a wistful story about opportunity and regret, whilst Footprint and Footprints are variations on the same otherworldy mystery. They are superbly written and remind of Rod Sterling’s Twilight Zone. Other people have said that this use of different perspectives is a literary form of cubism, a movement which was very prevalent in Czech arts at the time. Apparently he repeats this style in his trilogy of novels, which are individually entitled Hordubal, Meteor and An Ordinary Life, and together seen as his most significant literary work.  

The trilogy is also published by Catbird Press, as are transcripts of the interviews that Čapek conducted with Tomáš Masaryk, the first President of Czechoslovakia. Both men were students of pragmatism, a philosophy formally developed by people such as John Dewey which considers the value of ideas to be in their practicality. And it is worth considering this when reading Why I am No Communist, which Čapek wrote in 1924. In this paper, which is available online, he contrasts the emancipatory idea of Communism with the stulifying experience it subjects people to, pointing out that the slogan touted by Communists is power (the Czech moc), rather than help (pomoc).

A broader concern with the issues of his time is most famously evident in the satirical War with the Newts. The story is of the drunken Captain J. Van Toch, who, upon his travels in the Carribean, discovers a secluded bay containing four foot lizards capable of walking on their hind legs. Nicknaming them newts, Toch trains them to dive for pearls and in return gives them weapons to fend off sharks. The enterprise proves very successful, but the dynamic changes once investors hear that the newts are able to build islands via underwater soil sedimentation. Proclaiming a new dawn of land creation for mankind, they start to calculate how the newts might best be exploited to create their utopia. But as they do, the sea dependent newt population continues to expand rapidly. And what’s more, they’ve been stockpiling weapons and have begun to educate themselves.

Čapek is at his funniest when documenting the consequences of this tension. Journal entries, tales of scientific hubris and populist newspaper headlines are collated in a documentary style reportage that is fluent and absorbing. The parodies of colonial dressage and blinkered war mentalities are insightful and laconic. And, like all satires, it’s a take on the world he lived in that has contemporary resonance too. If you’ve ever enjoyed a novel by Kurt Vonnegut or Douglas Adams you should check it out.


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War With the Newts was published in 1936. The year previously Karel Čapek had married the actress Olga Scheinpflugova after many years of knowing each other. He died of influenza on the evening of the 25th of December 1938, three months before the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. It was an event he had spent considerable energy warning of.

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