Karel Capek

Capek, considered a leading literary and journalist figure of the First Republic, gained worldwide recognition, being also a 1936 Nobel Prize nominee. He is probably best known for coinage of the word robot, which was actually coined by his brother Josef, only Karel used it for the first time in a stage play, R.U.R (1921).

A large section of his work was connected to the philosophical system of pragmatism. He often introduces a simple story, which gets complicated by numerous possible approaches of the people involved. The first famous example is Hordubal, essentially a crime story of a worker, who returns to a Czech village after years of hard labour in the US. Since he kept sending money to his wife and exhausted himself for her sake, he expects her to welcome him with joy. The wife, however, has already found a lover and the husband becomes a burden that is hard to bear. His consequent murder is, at first, seen as an act of betrayal and self- centred cynicism. But Capek goes offers also the wife’s and the lover’s point of view and the picture gets complicated. It becomes clear that the husband himself is also to blame for lacking empathy, for having things for grated that his wife spends years in solitude, waiting for him the saviour to return.

Another example is Meteor, in which three hospital employees construct separate versions of what might have led to the fact that a nameless, nearly- dead man ended up on their unit.

The various points of view cannot be seen in a hierarchy. Each is valid and the truth is beyond reach. There is no objective truth of an event, of human actions. Such an assumption may seem nihilistic, but Capek was the contrary. He was passionate about humanism, democracy, rule of law and respect among citizens. The point may rather be: it’s not essential to seek the “objective truth” for it can’t be found, but there are principles and individual right which have to be respected. Everyone has the right for an opinion and in the end the principles are what matters, not necessarily the facts.

He was a very active author, his work consisting of many short stories, novels, stage plays and hundreds of feuilletons. His reportage work was also published and mainly his notes on the United States became very popular. As for ideology, he was considered a liberal. He admired the Western democracies, especially that of the US. His idea of Czech greatness was not defined against other nations in a competition, but rather in cooperation with the rest of the world. Strongly influenced by Masaryk, he also published a book of interviews he made with the president.
The later years of his work were shaped by the evolution of German Nazism. He presented metaphors of the Nazi threat, often in quite a direct, appellative manner. No surprise he was high on the Nazi’s death list and surviving until the occupation he would undoubtedly end up in a concentration camp, like his brother. He died of pneumonia shortly after the Munich agreement.

He remains one of the few Czech authors that remain enormously popular and admired. Not that there would be a consensus about his work. Some critics say his work merely reflected the literary trends of his time. He may have been more of an excellent craftsman than an original author and he did surely tend to please the public. Whether that’s right or wrong is up to everyone’s point of view.

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