Karel Čapek 1890-1938
Czechoslovakian novelist, dramatist, short story writer, journalist, and travel writer.
One of Czechoslovakia's foremost writers, Čapek is best known for his science fiction, primarily the drama R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) and the novel Válka s mloky (War with the Newts). Čapek also wrote a number of stories over the course of his brief career as a journalist for Lidové noviny; the majority of his stories were first published in that newspaper between 1920 and 1938. They express Capek's ardent humanism, as well as his philosophical belief in the plurality and relativity of truth.
Čapek was born in Malé Svatoňovice, a small village in northeastern Bohemia. A frail and sickly child, he was especially close to his older brother Josef, and as adults the brothers frequently collaborated on short stories and plays. Čapek began writing poetry and fiction in high school; soon after graduation he was publishing stories, written in collaboration with Josef, in Czech newspapers. After studying at universities in Prague, Berlin, and Paris, Capek earned a doctorate in philosophy at Prague's Charles University in 1915. Two years later, he began a career as a journalist whose articles often championed the cause of Czech nationalism. As World War II approached, Čapek and his brother, both outspoken opponents of fascism, were advised to leave Prague, but chose to remain and continue their opposition to Nazism. Čapek died three months before the Nazis invaded Prague; the secret police, unaware of his death, arrived at his home seeking his arrest. Josef was interned in a concentration camp, where he died shortly before the end of the war.
Čapek's stories are marked by stylistic diversity and continual shifts in subject matter. Indeed, as Peter Steiner noted, "There is hardly a form of writing that he did not try." Čapek's early short fiction is overtly political and replete with his ideological convictions; "No poetic isolation releases a writer from the civic context," wrote Čapek in 1935, adding "as long as he shares others' worries, the troubles of the time, and love for the nations, he has a right and, perhaps, even a manly duty not to defect from others' struggles." His use of fiction to comment on the political climate of his day is most apparent in Kniha apokryfů (Apocryphal Stories). The twenty-nine tales in Apocryphal Stories, which appeared in Lidové noviny during an eighteen-year period, were published posthumously as a collection in 1945. Most of the stories were written to commemorate a holiday or a day of historical significance. They serve as snapshots of Western civilization in which Čapek rewrites historical events, using irony, parody, parables, allegories, and hyperbole. Čapek's "Hamlet" was inspired by a Croatian terrorist raid in Hungary and Germany that resulted in the assassination of King Alexander of Yugoslavia, who was a close ally of the Czechs. In this story the hero is a budding playwright who wonders how he can influence an intolerable political situation. Published on the sixteenth anniversary of the formation of the Czech Republic, it provided Čapek with the opportunity to reflect on his role as a literary figure during an unstable time in his country's history.
Čapek's 1917 collection Boží muka (Wayside Crosses) is more philosophical than his newspaper stories. Deeply pessimistic, this collection reflects the author's spiritual crisis during the First World War. In "The Footprint," which is based on David Hume's speculations about an isolated print in the sand, two men find a mysterious, single footprint in fresh snow that leads nowhere. One of the men considers the footprint a miracle, a manifestation of God, but the second man dismantles the usefulness of miracles, arguing that they have no place in a rational world; "That footprint will not change me and will not save me, and will redeem me from nothing; it only torments me, it obsesses me and I cannot get rid of it. And I do not believe it; a miracle would content me, but that footprint is the first step to uncertainty. It would be better if I had not seen it." The theme of unsolved mysteries represented in "The Footprint" reappears in Čapek's pocket stories. Mysteries in these stories, however, do not follow the suspense-filled style of traditional detective stories. Instead, Čapek's mysteries often remain unsolved or are solved incidentally by unsuspecting lay persons. In "The Poet," for example, a detective fruitlessly questions a poet who witnesses a hit-and-run accident. The detective later discovers that a poem written by the witness contains the clue he needs to solve the mystery.
Capek's short fiction is not widely known in the United States, partly because many of his tales have not been translated into English. Critics have compared Čapek's stories to those of G. K. Chesterton and H. G. Wells, but have noted themes and ideas in Čapek's works sometimes stand in the way of plot and characterization. Nevertheless, Čapek's stones have been widely praised for their keen interest in humanity and its future. Clarence A. Manning regarded Čapek as "a man who combined a deep human philosophy and understanding, a sympathy for human life as it is, with a keen analytical sense of the source of the woes of the twentieth century." William E. Harkins added, "The tragedy of his homeland and his premature death cut short the philosophical and creative development of a great writer, a profound thinker, and a great human spirit."