Edward W Batchelder

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Utopia Can Wait

Toward the Radical Center: A Karel Capek Reader
War with the Newts
Three Novels: Hordubal, Meteor, An Ordinary Life

Karel Capek
(Catbird Press)

photo of Karel Capek

It’s the fate of certain exceptionally prolific and well-published writers to suffer an eclipse after their deaths. Where in life their work had seemed to appear everywhere and to illuminate everything—like those enormous fireworks that send streamers into every corner of the night sky—their death brings about a sudden obscurity. No longer supported by the constant, vigorous presence of their personalities, their work fades from view and leaves only a faint afterimage on the retina of the culture.

In the case of the Czech writer Karel Capek, this afterimage has been reduced for most American readers to a single word, “robot,” which Capek and his brother coined for the 1920 play R.U.R.. Despite the irony involved in this (the play is about robots who supplant their human creators), the word can be seen as a ready shorthand for most of the major themes of Capek’s work: the tension between human values and technical progress, the apocalyptic possibility of mankind being usurped by its own inventions, and the deeper, underlying question of what it is, exactly, that makes up the human character.

Born in 1890, Capek came of age as a writer just as the Czechs were rediscovering their national identity, and this seems to have been the catalyst for an astonishing variety of work: novels, short stories, plays, essays, travel journals, collections of folk tales, and translations—all in addition to his regular work as a journalist. It’s as if a historical drama was being enacted, and Capek felt the need to act all the parts. Stylistically, the range is equally broad. His most recent American publisher has described him as the Czech Thurber, and if you read his lighter essays on gardening or raising pets, accompanied by his or his brother’s whimsical pen sketches, the title seems apt enough. The gentle poking of fun at human foibles is there, buffered by a sentimental affection for the human race.

One the other hand, reading his biting anti-utopian novel, War with the Newts, you might as easily call him the Czech Vonnegut or the Czech Swift. His trilogy of novels, Hordubal, Meteor, and An Ordinary Life, are an extended reflection on the nature of personal identity, and put him closer to Pirandello. The plays: R.U.R., From the Life of Insects, or The Mother, call to mind some odd conjunction of George Bernard Shaw and German Expressionism, tinged with pessimism.

Capek himself described his work as literary cubism, an attempt to discover the truth through the adoption of a variety of perspectives, and the range of voices he assumes as a writer mirrors the range of attitudes he explores within any given piece. Philosophically, he described himself as a relativist, “a philosophy,” he wrote, “which is neither very new nor uplifting, a philosophy which I repeat ad naseum in my books.” Yet the variety of methods he employs in his explorations of relativism, from detective stories to philosophical novels, saves his work from being merely an extended, one-note aria.

In an early story, “Pilate’s Creed,” collected in Toward the Radical Center, Capek recreates a conversation between Pontius Pilate and Joseph of Arimathea. The story is remarkable for the strength with which opposing views are expressed; the reader is bounced between the sincere, yet fanatical belief of Joseph, and Pilate’s world-weary, tolerant skepticism. “Each one who makes his own truth rules out all other truths,” Pilate argues, “As though a carpenter who makes a new chair abolished all old chairs . . . why in heaven’s name should a tired man not be able to sit down on any wretched stone or worm-eaten seat? He is tired and broken, he needs a rest; and here you drag him by force from the resting place into which he has dropped to make him change over to yours."

“Truth” objects Joseph of Arimathea, “is not like a chair or a resting place; it is, instead, a command. . . . The man who does not obey such a command is a traitor and an enemy. That’s how it is with the truth.” Pilate replies that the world is big enough to hold many truths, to which Joseph answers, “You are neither hot nor cold, you are just lukewarm.” “No,” insists Pilate, “I believe most passionately that truth exists and that man recognizes it . . . yes and no cannot unite, but people always can; there is more truth in people than in words."

At the same time as Capek was writing this, though, he was also working on the pessimistic R.U.R., the play that remains his most famous, though far from his best, work. Despite Capek’s ability to create believable, vernacular dialogue within his stories, the play is marred by the overt philosophizing of his characters. The characters in R.U.R. are given names, but they could as easily be given conceptual titles, like “Idealistic Young Woman,” “Believer in Technical Progress,” or “Simple Devout Country Grandmother.” The popularity of the piece (it was translated and performed throughout Europe, as well as in America and Japan) stems more from its ideas than its success as a piece of theatre.

Domin, the president of Rossum’s Universal Robots, has instituted the mass production of the robots to free mankind from the drudgery of labor. It’s an uneasy coupling of technology and misplaced idealism, and when the robots have taken over all human work, the characters find themselves sterile, unable to bear children. The robots, seeing that they are clearly the more efficient beings (unhindered as they are by extraneous emotions and a soul), revolt and eliminate mankind. Only the engineer, who works with his hands, is spared. The play can be read as an attack on both communism (the robots unite under vaguely Marxist slogans to throw off their oppressors, and the sparing of the life of the engineer reads like a scene from the Cultural Revolution) and unregulated capitalism (the director realizes early on that the robots are dangerous, but is unwilling to sacrifice company profits). In fact, its true target is the more generic belief that technological progress can offer a solution to the basic problems of human existence.

These ideas receive a much better treatment in War with the Newts. A rare species of intelligent salamander is discovered near Sumatra, and a company is formed to help distribute them throughout the world. Again, the dream is here of a utopian existence for mankind, based on the existence of cheap labor. Inevitably, the newts are armed as one country after another seeks to defend its seacoast against its neighbors, and just as inevitably they rise up against their human oppressors.

What is marvelous about the book is the way Capek uses the newts as a device to mock various aspects of modern life. The newts are, at various points, a symbol of technological progress, of the exploitation of nature, of the relationship between the developed and the third world, and of nationalism run amok. The French, for instance, set up schools to teach the newts proper pronunciation so that they can read Lamartine and Victor Hugo in the original; the British organize clothing drives so the salamanders won’t have to run around naked; the Germans claim to have developed a species of Baltic newt, genetically hardier and less degenerate than its tropical cousins, and they organize school trips where the children sing folk songs in praise of the true Prussian Newt ("Solche Erfolge / Erreichen nur deutsche Molche"). Americans, for their part, upon hearing that a group of newts has attacked a white women, run out and lynch several blacks in revenge.

The novel, written in 1936, appeared first in installments in a newspaper, and it has a digressive, playful tone. Capek creates a number of false documents to supplement his history of the war: old newspaper clippings, communist pamphlets, scientific treatises, and school memoirs; these are all added in footnotes that lend a supposed authenticity. At the same time, though, despite the playfulness, the book can’t escape the darkening political climate in Europe, and has a somewhat bitter edge to it. In a foreshadowing of the Munich pact that would abandon Czechoslovakia to Hitler, the humans offer to let the newts flood all of central China if they will leave the rest of the world alone.

Capek, the journalist and traveler, maintained that War with the Newts was in no way a futuristic novel, but merely a mirror of current circumstances. The book’s greatest strength is its refusal to offer any specific interpretation or point of view. It’s the antithesis of his other relativisitic works: rather than articulating the various sides of a problem, Capek mocks them all.

The increasing spread of fascism through the continent, particularly in Germany on Czechoslovakia’s north border, threw Capek’s democratic relativism in doubt. If, in fact, there is no centrally recognizable truth, and each view, even with its errors, can be seen as equally valid, then where can the moral force come from to resist totalitarianism? His novelistic trilogy, Hordubal, Meteor, and An Ordinary Life, is an attempt to resolve this: in effect, to triangulate the position of truth, to discover how it is that we can agree on anything.

The muted, tragic Hordubal follows in a somewhat stream-of-consciousness fashion a poor Czech worker, who returns from eight years in America to find his wife has taken a new lover, and that he is the laughing stock of the village. Refusing to respond forcefully, as his neighbors expect, he lingers in a sorrowful, dreamy state, devoted to his wife and hoping that with time it may be possible to regain her. After his death at the hands of the lover, the various personages of the town (the police chief, the prosecutor, the judge, the gossips) meet to attempt to explain the murder. None of them, it is clear, has the slightest understanding of his character, or the delicacy of the motivations of his actions. They have the facts of the case, but not the grace or sympathy to comprehend.

In Meteor, a small plane crashes during a violent storm, and the surviving passenger is taken to a local hospital, severely burned and unconscious. Each of the people who comes in contact with him—the nurse, the doctor, a clairvoyant mental patient, and a poet—try to reconstruct a life for him. The nurse dreams of him, the clairvoyant has visions, the doctor examines the medical records, and the poet builds from a series of logical hypotheses. They are all wrong, in some sense, insofar as all the explanations vary, but they all intersect in surprising ways. Lacking the facts, they meet in some common area of human understanding.

In An Ordinary Life, an aged railway official sets down the chronicle of his life. For some 75 pages we read a calm evocation to an orderly and simple existence before, in a paroxysm of self-revelation, the man tears it down, and creates an entirely new, darker life for himself, and then several others, each of which takes into account certain facts, and ignores others. His ordinary life has in fact held the traces of several lives; his final recognition is one of a plurality of selves.

What holds the trilogy together is the central concern with the discovery of identity. If we each contain within us the seeds of others, then this gives us some common ground. Capek retains his relativism, but infuses it with some hope of a shared perspective.

A graph of Capek’s popularity as a writer in America would follow fairly closely the fortunes of his country. During the democratic republic between the wars, virtually all his major work was translated, but as Czechoslovakia vanished beneath the Nazis in the forties, and then the Soviets in the fifties, Capek’s work seemed to vanish with it. Aside from a small renascence in the sixties, there have been few new editions of his work in English until this year, the centennial of his birth. This is perhaps as it should be, for Capek allied himself closely with the causes of democracy and Czech freedom.

It’s equally fitting that this year, as his work reappears, his country should be re-establishing a democratic order. One of the first casualties in a totalitarian system is a sense of the variability of human existence; life becomes too easily defined, by both the regime and its opponents, in black-and-white terms, and morality becomes a set of fixed principles. Capek, with his belief in relativism, is a master of the grey tones, of the recognition that each person has his or her own angle of vision on the truth, and that it is only by considering all of these that one might arrive at a commonly shared consensus of what reality is.

© Edward W Batchelder
(from The Boston Phoenix)

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