Čapek, Karel

Tagged: Author

(1890-1938) Writer born in the former Austria-Hungary of Czech parentage, younger brother of Josef Čapek; his career spanned the entirety of Czechoslovakia's first period of independent existence (1918-1938); during the second incarnation of his native land, under Communist regimes, he was rendered as invisible as the new owners of the country dared. His pre-World War One career was almost entirely conducted in collaboration with his brother, with whom he remained on exceedingly good terms for the rest of his life; they often published as Bratří Čapkové ["The Brothers Čapek"], and are warmly portrayed together by David Herter in The Luminous Depths (2008), the second volume of his First Republic Trilogy. Čapek's exceedingly copious production included plays, novels, stories, much journalism, imaginative travel books, and at least two volumes written to publicize President Tomáš Masaryk (1850-1937) of Czechoslovakia in his formidable old age; Čapek's close and creative friendship with Masaryk, with the implication that it might be natural (at least in Czechoslovakia) for government and culture to mix, deeply influenced Václav Havel (1936-2011).

After publishing several volumes of stories (not all translated), including Trapné povídky (coll 1921; trans Francis P Marchant, Dora Round, F P Casey and Otakar Vočadio as Money and Other Stories 1929), Čapek began to produce the plays for which he remains perhaps best known, in particular R.U.R.: Rossum's Universal Robots: Kolektivni Drama (1920; trans Paul Selver with Nigel Playfair as R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots): A Fantastic Melodrama 1923 UK; US trans by Paul Selver alone 1923 differs) and, with Josef Čapek, Že života hmyzu (1921; trans Nigel Playfair and Clifford Bax as And So Ad Infinitum (The World of the Insects) 1923 UK; selected vt, trans Owen Davis as The World We Live In 1933 US; most commonly known as The Insect Play) together as Bratří Čapkové ["The Brothers Čapek"] [for details see Checklist below]. R.U.R. introduced the word Robot (at Josef's suggestion) to the world. In Czech it means something like "serf labour", and in the play it applies not to robots made of metal, as we have come to think of them, but to a worker-class of persecuted Androids, whom Čapek thought of as biologically and chemically artificial, "but not [artefacts] in the mechanical sense". For him they were homunculi updated. The play itself, if understood as a lurchingly hilarious vaudeville, can nearly transcend its portentous scattershot symbolism, and the neo-Tolstoyan bathos of its life-affirming conclusion. Just as Čapek himself must be caught on the wing if he is to be read properly, R.U.R. must be performed at speed. In The Insect Play, which is a far more adroit Beast Fable [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], various arthropods go through vaudeville routines explicitly related to cognate activities on the part of humans, to scathing effect. But it is only with the new translation by Tatian Firkusny and Robert T Jones of Act Two in unexpurgated form – in Toward the Radical Center: A Karel Čapek Reader (coll 1990) edited by Peter Kussi – that the reader can begin to assess the full impact of this extraordinary work.

A further play, Věc Makropulos (1922; unauthorized trans by Randal C Burrell in novel format as The Makropoulos Secret 1925; authorized trans by Paul Selver of rev text The Macropoulos Secret 1927), similarly cloaks in comic routines the terrifying story of the alluring, world-weary, 300-year-old protagonist, the secret of her longevity, and her ambivalently conceived death (a new translation, by Robert T Jones and Yveta Synek Graff, also in Toward the Radical Center, does something to reveal the frightening pace of the play). The work is most familiar as the basis of an opera by Leoš Janáček (1854-1928). A later collaboration with Josef Čapek, Adam stvořitel (1927; trans Dora Round as Adam the Creator 1927) together as Bratří Čapkové ["The Brothers Čapek"], was less successful (for details see Josef Čapek); and Bílá nemoc (1937; trans Paul Selver and Ralph Neale as Power and Glory 1938; new trans Michael Henry Heim as "The White Plague" in Cross Currents 7, 1988) has been available to an English-speaking readership, in anything like its original form, only since 1988.

Of greater interest to the sf reader was the first of Čapek's sf novels, Továrna na absolutno (21 September 1921-4 October 1922 Lidové Noviny; 1922; trans Šarká B Hrbková as The Absolute at Large 1927), like much of his fiction a deceptively light-toned Satire, clearly showing its origins in Lidove noviny, the Prague newspaper for which Čapek wrote regularly, in a chatty, cosmopolitan, typographically experimental feuilleton format. A scientist invents the Karburator, an atomic device which produces almost free power through the absolute conversion of energy, a process which unfortunately also releases the totalizing essence of God, causing a spate of miracles and other effects; ultimately there is a devastating religious Future War, because everyone contaminated by God has his or her absolute knowledge of the truth, however various these truths happen to be. Its immediate successor, Krakatit (1924; trans Lawrence Hyde 1925; vt An Atomic Phantasy: Krakatit 1948), hearkens back to the fever-ridden brio of Čapek's stories and plays up to the early 1920s, and serves to culminate this first – and in some ways most energetically dark – period of his creative life. Krakatit is both a quasi-atomic explosive and – by analogy – the sexual abyss into which its inventor, Prokop, topples. Neither the world nor Prokop emerges unscathed from the consequent acid bath of reality – reality-to-excess. These novels are set in middle Europe, and the teasing of apocalypse so conspicuous in them – most of his sf threatens or culminates in the destruction of humanity – works to transmit some sense of Čapek's sensitive political consciousness, identifiably Central European in its inherent assumptions about the precariousness of institutions and the dubiousness of their claimed benevolence. He has often (naturally enough) been likened to his fellow Czech, Franz Kafka; but the phantasmagoric mutual incriminations of Sex and Id-releasing Inventions in his work suggest that a closer spiritual brother might be the Austrian Leo Perutz. His Aftermath-tinged ambivalence about the virtues of technological transformation is most clearly articulated, perhaps, in an essay (translator unknown) published in The New York Times Magazine in 1926:

There are people who wish that America would one day civilize old Europe as Europe once civilized the old empire of the Aztecs. I admit that this prospect terrifies me, as the cultural ideals of the European conquerors terrified the old Aztecs, and in my Aztec tongue I utter a war cry against this threat to our European reservation.

Čapek's first 1930s novels constitute an essentially nonfantastic thematic trilogy on the epistemology and underlying problematics of Identity in an increasingly insecure world; the second volume of this sequence, Povětroň (1934; trans M & R Weatherall as Meteor 1935), which comprises three ultimately incompatible identifications of a comatose man who has fallen from the sky, comes close to sf when (according to one interpreter) he may be the inventor of a new chemical formula (see Inventions). But this Čapek's almost allergenic awareness of the fragility of civilization in the twentieth century is perhaps best summed up in his last sf novel, Vàlka s Mloky (1935 Lidove noviny; 1936; trans M and R Weatherall as War with the Newts 1937; new trans Ewald Osers 1985), in which a strange, apparently exploitable sea-dwelling race of "newts" is discovered in the South Pacific – where Rossum's robots also "lived". The newts are immediately enslaved by human entrepreneurs; but the resulting dramas of class struggle and social injustice are rendered with a high ashen ambivalence, for the newts, having gained the necessary human characteristics and a "newt Hitler" to guide them, turn against their masters and flood the continents in order to acquire lebensraum. This final siege – almost all of Čapek's sf features sieges of one sort or another, perhaps inevitable given his personality and his country's perilous state – is the end for Homo sapiens. The book chills with its seeming levity, though its English setting fails to represent the typographical exuberance of the feuilleton original, a format that gave Capek room both to spoof some journalist conventions and to convey at the same time an aura of documentary vividness, ominously fixing the story into the precarious present-tense of the Czech world two years before the real newts cancelled it.

In the end, Čapek is perhaps less memorable for his sf innovations, which do not comprise the heart of his speculations, than for his rendering of the cultural fragility of his native land – and of the increasing hysteria of the world surrounding Czechoslovakia – that so illuminates his tales of displaced, terminal civilizations. He is, very purely, a writer whose work always embodies, directly or at an angle, a deep proleptic terror at the tragic progress toward self-destruction of Europe Between the Wars. [JC]

see also: Automation; Czech and Slovak SF; History of SF; Immortality; Mecha; Machines; Flann O'Brien; Power Sources; SF Music.

Karel Čapek

born Malé Slatoňovice, Austria-Hungary [now Czech Republic]: 9 January 1890

died Prague, Czechoslovakia [now Czech Republic]: 25 December 1938


  • Továrna na absolutno (Brno, Czechoslovakia: Polygrafia, 1922) [first appeared 21 September 1921-4 October 1922 Lidové Noviny: hb/]
  • Krakatit (Prague, Czechoslovakia: Aventinum, 1924) [hb/]
    • Krakatit (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1925) [trans by Lawrence Hyde of the above: hb/Kenneth Romney Towndrow]
  • Povětroň (Prague, Czechoslovakia: Nakladatel Fr Borový, 1934) [hb/]
    • Meteor (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1935) [trans by M & R Weatherall of the above: hb/]
  • Vàlka s Mloky (Prague, Czechoslovakia: Nakladatel Fr Borový, 1936) [hb/]
    • War with the Newtssfgateway.com (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1937) [trans by M and R Weatherall of the above: hb/?Kirby]
    • War with the Newtssfgateway.com (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1985) [new trans by Ewald Osers of the above: hb/Chris Lione]



about the author

  • Ivan Klíma. Velký věk chce mít též velké mordy: život a dílo Karla Capka (Prague, Czech Republic: Academia, 2001) [nonfiction: pb/]
    • Ivan Klíma. Karel Čapek: Life and Work (North Haven, Connecticut: Catbird Press, 2002) [nonfiction: trans by Norma Comrada of the above: hb/photomontage of Čapek]
  • Robert M Philmus. "Karel Čapek's Can(n)on [sic] of Negation" in Visions and Re-Visions: [Re]constructing Science Fiction (Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 2005) [nonfiction: coll: discusses Meteor (see text above): pp79-113: hb/]


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