There’s an esprit de l’escalier peculiar to the writer, when your book has just gone to the printer and you hit upon something so crucial to it that you hop about for days cursing at the loss. So it is with me and Karel Čapek.
I first came across Čapek’s name obliquely, as the friend and interlocutor of the first Czechoslovak president, Tomás Garrigue Masaryk. I was writing a memoir centred around my Czechoslovak father’s journey out of central Europe in December 1939, and was finding out about the history of his country – a history which to many English people, and not just Chamberlain, was as unknown as the word itself was exotic.
The philosopher-president Masaryk was central to that history, conjuring up the new country in October 1918 out of the debris of the collapsed Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was a new country based on an old dream, latent for 300 years of Habsburg domination: the dream of an independent and united Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia. This Czechoslovakia was the country my father was born into in 1920 (and which would subliminally influence my life nearly a hundred years later). For my purposes then, Karel Čapek was simply the man who had interviewed Masaryk, in a book translated into English as President Masaryk Tells His Story, ‘recounted by Karel Čapek’, and published in England in 1936.
All the same, I did register that Čapek sounded quirky and intriguing. He’d written a play called R.U.R., which introduced the word ‘robot’ to the world – a coinage of his brother Josef. The titles of his plays and novels had an appealingly modern, Kafkaesque ring: From the Life of Insects, War with the Newts, Meteor, Awkward Tales, A Factory for the Absolute, An Ordinary Life. He was prolific, his writing blooming with the new country which came into being just as he came into his prime, aged 28. He wrote poetry, children’s books, essa
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