Karel apek was a philosophical writer par excellence regardless of the genre that he employed in a given work, but the form of long fiction in particular afforded him the amplitude to express complicated philosophical ideas. Thus, his greatest achievement is the trilogy consisting of Hordubal, Meteor, and An Ordinary Life. These three novels preserve the fruit of apek’s life’s work: the searching and finding of his many short stories, plays, and newspaper columns, as well as his lifelong preoccupation with the philosophy of pragmatism and relativism.
While the trilogy is a complex and at the same time harmonious statement of apek’s philosophy, his last novel, The Cheat, though shorter than either of the three novels of the trilogy, is important for representing a sharp and shocking departure from the trilogy’s philosophy. It represents a further development of apek’s philosophical search.
Hordubal is based on a newspaper story of a crime that took place in the most backward region of prewar Czechoslovakia, the Transcarpathian Ukraine. Juraj Hordubal, an unsophisticated but very sensitive and even saintly peasant, returns from the United States, where he worked and made some money, to his wife Polana and daughter Hafia. He is unaware that in his absence, Polana has fallen in love with Stefan Manya, a Hungarian hired hand. To disguise this affair, Polana forces Manya to become engaged to the eleven-year-old Hafia. When this ruse does not work, the lovers kill Hordubal with a long needle. An investigation uncovers the crime and identifies the criminals, who are caught and punished.
Appropriating the bare facts of the newspaper report with minimal modifications, apek invests this simple tale of passion with philosophical depth, first by making Hordubal a rather sensitive man who is aware of the changed circumstances upon his return home. The reader is painfully aware of this when the author lets the reader follow Hordubal’s thoughts in beautifully stylized, lyric passages of almost saintly insight and renunciation of violence, leading to the acceptance of his death. The tension develops on several levels simultaneously.
The first level is the crime passionnelle, the road that introduces us to the contrasting figures of Hordubal and Manya. A deeper level is attained when the reader perceives the cultural-ethnic contrast: Hordubal, the sedentary agricultural type, is opposed to the Hungarian Manya, the nomadic, violent type. Finally, there is the level on which the tension is between subjective reality, the reality of a given character who sees the world his or her own way, and objective reality. The conclusion, however, undercuts any confident faith in the existence of objective reality. Hordubal is seriously ill when he is murdered, so that a question arises whether the needle of the killer entered his heart before or after his death; if after, there was no murder.
The problem of the interpretation of even simple phenomena is brought to a head in the confrontation between two irreconcilable types of criminal investigations, based on different sets of assumptions and interpretations of events. In the conflict between the young police officer and his seasoned colleague, the deceptively simple case grows more and more complicated. In a plot twist that stresses the evanescent nature of humankind’s certainties, the key evidence, Hordubal’s heart, is lost in transport, condemning those involved in the investigation to...
(The entire section is 1457 words.)