The Once and Future Karel Capek

Michael Henry Heim teaches in the departments of Slavic languages and literatures and comparative literature at UCLA and has translated numerous works by Milan Kundera, Gunter Grass, Bohumil Hrabal and others.

Literary fortunes come and go. Karel Capek (1890-1938) once enjoyed the kind of international acclaim vouchsafed more recently to his fellow Czech--and great admirer--Milan Kundera. His dramas--especially “R.U.R.,” which introduced Capek’s term “robot” to the world--played to packed houses throughout Europe and the Americas; his stories and novels (such as “Tales From Two Pockets” and “War With the Newts”) were translated as soon as they appeared.

He also wrote animated and engaging travelogues (“Letters From England,” “Letters From Holland,” “Letters From Italy,” “Letters From Spain”), political works (including a biography of the first president of the Czech Republic, “Talks With T.G. Masaryk”) and personal essays (“The Gardener’s Year”). And despite the diversity of genres and styles and an enormous output within a relatively brief period (he had a late start because of World War I and, as we shall see, an early end because of the German invasion of his country in 1938), Capek was anything but a graphomaniac: Every line is thoughtful and thought-provoking.

Why then did he virtually vanish from the literary horizon? The main reason, I would argue, is that the times called for a less temperate voice than his. His basic position was one of pluralistic acceptance, the commensurability of opposing views. It was so basic that he built it into his works, even structured them around it, predicating what some consider his masterpiece, a trilogy of novels (“Hordubal,” “Meteor,” “An Ordinary Life,” available in English in one volume as “Three Novels”), on the principle that no account of a life--or even an isolated incident--is entirely valid or invalid. The result is a Rashomon-like revisitation of characters and events from varying points of view.


Not that Capek’s relativism by any means extended to an acceptance of National Socialism. Since the Nazi regime was totalitarian, it excluded pluralist thought by definition, and if only for that reason was anathema to him. His last major novel, “War With the Newts,” can be read on one of its many levels as a brutal satire of Hitler and his policies, and he was so demoralized by the German takeover that several months later he succumbed without resistance to a bronchial inflammation. Yet he had repeatedly called for tolerance vis-a-vis the German minority in Czechoslovakia, and, as tensions mounted, popular sympathy for tolerance declined.

If after the war Capek failed to make an immediate comeback in his own country, the new geopolitical situation was to blame: Czechoslovakia had been thrust into the arms of the century’s other main totalitarian regime, and his pluralism made him a prime candidate for the blacklist. Nor did it help that he had written a short but pointed essay titled “Why I Am Not a Communist.”

To trace the battle to republish his works and his reinstatement as a leading force in Czech letters (“rehabilitation,” in the jargon of the time) is to trace the liberalization of the regime from the deep Stalinism of its origins to the Prague Spring of 1968.

The time has come for a rehabilitation beyond the borders of his native country. In ours, as the two books under review demonstrate, it has begun. Thanks to the selfless labors of Robert Wechsler, who founded his Catbird Press with the express intention of making Capek available again in English, the major works are in print. Wechsler has also enlisted a number of translators (primary among them the highly gifted Norma Comrada) to provide revitalized versions of the works.

It is not by chance that the movement to bring Capek back has been so active in the United States. As Ivan Klima makes abundantly clear in his fine biography, “Karel Capek: Life and Work”--commissioned by Wechsler and the first in any language--Capek was unusual among continental writers in taking the American intellectual tradition seriously. In this he was not alone among Czechs: Masaryk based the political institutions of the First Czechoslovak Republic, which owed its existence to President Wilson’s vision for post-Hapsburg Europe, largely on American models.

Capek found American philosophy attractive as well, especially in the person of William James. In 1918 he published a book-length essay titled “Pragmatism, or a Philosophy for Practical Life.” The relativism that so infuses his work derives largely from the Jamesian pragmatic method of interpreting each notion “by tracing its respective practical consequences.” Should it have no practical consequences, we are free to create our own truths--as long as we accept the responsibility for their fallout and do not think of them as absolute (and thus try to force them on others). What counts is reality, the world waiting to be fashioned by our activity.

This American-inspired optimism served to steel Capek first, in the 1920s, against the ideology that had just triumphed in Russia and promised a radiant future, and then, in the 1930s, against the ideology that was triumphing in Germany and promised a millennium of Aryan rule. It appears in literary guise in “Tales From Two Pockets,” published at the decades’ juncture, a volume of four-to five-page detective stories in which the detectives range from scruffy police inspectors as simple-minded as the murderers they seek (and therefore capable of finding them) to a poet who uses metaphors to reconstruct the particulars of an accident. Anyone can be a detective. What could be more democratic?

The devotion to American-style democracy comes across on another level as well. “Capek devised splendid plots,” Klima perceptively notes, “to support the idea that almost everything that appears mysterious can be reduced to something banal or everyday.” In other words, extraordinary events have ordinary explanations. At the apocalyptic conclusion to “War With the Newts” we learn that the newts’ bid to take over the world would not have occurred had not a modest Czech doorman brought two of the protagonists together. The message is that the accumulation of small actions speaks louder than a single large one, that “little people,” not the larger-than-life hero, constitute the moving force of history.

For all their political and philosophical concerns, Capek’s works are unfailingly entertaining: Capek is never heavy-handed, and his tongue is never far from his cheek. The stories brought together in “Cross Roads”--from “Wayside Crosses” (1917), translated here for the first time, and “Painful Tales” (1921), skillfully translated afresh--show him still coming into his own: in the former he has yet to demystify mystery, and the puzzle of a lone footprint in the snow remains unsolved; in the latter, to quote the 1929 New York Times reviewer of the earlier English version, he “takes his place in that school of the short story which includes Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield and our own Sherwood Anderson,” and in fact the stories deal masterfully and in the open-ended fashion of a Chekhov, Mansfield or Anderson with a variety of frustrated lives.

Klima’s biography is ideal for helping the reader to determine where to go from here. A prominent Czech writer who has clearly learned many a lesson from his subject, Klima delivers more homage than scholarly disquisition. As follows from the “life and work” in the subtitle, his is an exercise in an unabashedly conventional criticism: For Klima, the author is understandably far from dead; he is very much alive, and his life (his relationship to his family, his health, his loves) a key--if not the key--to his works, each of which receives due attention.

They deserve our attention too at a time when, mercifully, the two messianic ideologies that silenced Capek are a thing of the past and possibly the humane democratic society in which he believed is beginning to unfold. If anything, then, his works are more timely now than when he wrote them, and his lightness and sureness of tone, his ability to combine elements of fable, psychological realism and science fiction, of satire and parody, but most of all the obvious pleasure he takes in the old-fashioned art of storytelling make him a joy to read.


From ‘The Footprint’ (included in ‘Cross Roads’)

Walking outside, Boura hesitantly sinks his feet into the untouched snow ... coming towards him on the road is someone dressed in black and covered with snow ...

“You see that footprint over there?” said the snow-decked man, and he pointed at an imprint perhaps six yards from the side of the road.

“I see it: it’s a man’s footprint.”

“Yes, but how did it get there?” Someone was walking there, Boura started to say, but he held back, puzzled: the footprint was alone in the midst of a field, and neither before nor behind it was there a trace of other footsteps. The print was quite clear and distinct against the white, but it was solitary: nothing led either to it or away ...

Boura pondered the matter with utmost concentration. “Perhaps there was a natural depression in the ground over there, or a footprint left in the mud that froze, and snow fell into it. Or else, wait a minute, perhaps a cast-off boot was standing there and a bird carried it away when the snow stopped falling. In either case there would be a snow-free spot similar to a footprint. We must look for natural causes.”

“If a boot had stood there before the storm, there’d be black earth left under it; but all I see is snow.”

“Perhaps the bird carried away the boot while it was still snowing, or in mid-flight he dropped it into the fresh snow and then carried it off again. It simply cannot be a footprint.”

“Tell me, can this bird of yours eat boots? Or build a nest in one? A small bird can’t pick up a boot, and a big one couldn’t fit inside of it. We need to solve this on general principles. I think that it is a footprint, and since it didn’t come up out of the earth, it must have come from above. You fancy that it was carried off by a bird, but it’s possible that it might have fallen from--from a balloon. Maybe someone was hanging from a balloon and placed his foot down into the snow just to make fools of us all. Don’t laugh, it’s embarrassing to try to account for this in such a far-fetched way, but--I’d prefer it not to be a footprint.”