Karel Capek

Karel Capek

And now it's time for the next edition in our series Czechs in History, in which we examine the lives of famous people throughout the history of the Czech Lands. In this week's Czechs in History, Nick Carey takes a look at author and journalist Karel Capek...

Karel Capek
Karel Capek was born almost one hundred and ten years ago to the day, on January 9th, 1890, in the East Bohemian mining village of Male Svatonovice. He was the son of the local doctor, and the youngest of three children. Karel Capek was very sick as a small child with spinal problems, and was to remain so for the majority of his life. Because he was the youngest, and in poor health, he was lavished with attention at home. He went to school in the town of Hradec Kralove, and it was here that Capek became involved in an activity that few people are aware of, as novelist Ivan Klima, who is an expert on Karel Capek, told me:

After completing school, Capek went to university in Prague to study philosophy, and he spent time in Paris and Berlin as part of his studies. He received his doctorate in philosophy in 1915 at the age of twenty five, having written a dissertation on pragmatism. Immediately after this, due to a shortage of work available during the First World War, he worked first of all as a tutor to the son of an aristocrat, and then for short time as a librarian, before making a career move in 1917 that was to affect the rest of his life:

It was in 1916 that Capek's literary activities began, at first in co-operation with his elder brother Josef, who was himself a writer and painter. They published several joint efforts, including The Insect Play (1921), which is known world-wide. Even when they were not working together, they sought each other's advice. Karel asked his older brother for help with his play R.U.R. and asked him for a word to describe a machine that looks like a man and can do much more work. Josef thought up the word robot, from the Czech for hard work, robota, and this word then found its way into international use. Capek published many other plays and stories, which are again known internationally, including the War with the Newts in 1935, in which a race of newts is trained as slaves, and then they start taking over the world. This is perceived as an anti-fascist novel. Many of Capek's works have a similar theme. But was behind this? Ivan Klima:

Throughout his writing career, Karel Capek remained a journalist, and it is here that much of his activity was centred. As Ivan Klima pointed out, he was a firm believer in the individual, and was a fervent supporter of democracy during the first years of the fledgling Czechoslovak state. Capek was close to the country's first president, TG Masaryk, and spoke to him periodically to prepare a book, Talks with Masaryk, in which Masaryk talked about his life and his beliefs. Karel Capek also wrote various political essays, including perhaps his most controversial, Why I am not a Communist, which unsurprisingly did not get him invited to any Communist Party cocktail parties. How did this sit with his role as a writer of fiction?:

Now we have heard that Karel Capek attacked fascism in War with the Newts and in his essays, and Communism in Why I am not a Communist, so where did he fit in within the political spectrum?:

Not surprisingly, after the Communist Party took power in Czechoslovakia in 1948, there was a backlash against Karel Capek's works. In the early fifties there was a complete ban on Capek's works, and later in the same decade only his works related to the fight against fascism were permitted. As the political regime eased up in the sixties, the situation changed somewhat:

Karel Capek died on Christmas Day 1938. He was, as I have mentioned, a sick man throughout his life, with spinal problems and other ailments, and unfortunately he was a very heavy smoker, which was not considered a health threat. In the end, he died of pneumonia, which anyone in poor physical condition and a predilection to cigarettes would have succumbed very easily. Now, over sixty years after his death, Karel Capek is known world-wide but not universally. How is he perceived by his home audience, by contemporary readers in the Czech Republic. Ivan Klima again:

And to close, here is one Karel Capek's poems, written after the destruction of the town of Badajoz by fascist bombers during the Spanish Civil War:

When this century collapses, dead at last,

and its sleep within the dark tomb has begun,

come, look down upon us, world, file past

and be ashamed of what our age has done.

Inscribe our stone, that everyone may see

what this dead era valued most and best:

science, progress, work, technology

and death - but death we prized above the rest.

We set new records, measuring men and deeds

in terms of greatness; thus we tempted fate.

In keeping with the greatness of our deeds,

our heroes and our gangster, too, were great.

The 20th century, buried; nonetheless,

World, see what eras yet to come will gain:

Great new records, great inventions. Wretchedness.

Dictators. War. A ruined town in Spain.