Sunday, September 23, 2018

Czech books I have read recently - robot love, plus Kafka and Cather - Only you, love, will blossom on this rubbish heap

Maybe I should have put Franz Kafka in this category.  I organize literature by language, mostly, but it was Klaus Wagenbach’s little biography Kafka (1964) that had me frequently consulting a little map of central Prague.  It helped, too, that I have been there, briefly.  Kafka’s day-to-day world was so small, centered around the main square, the GrosserRing.  His father’s shop was in the same building as his high school.

The Kafka of today, poor fellow, is writing intense fables about people who are trampled by Segway tours and clobbered by selfie sticks.  Or maybe wake up after uneasy dreams to find themselves transformed into selfie sticks.  I did not have the best experience right there in the center of Prague where Kafka lived and worked.  The rest of Prague was great.

The Wagenbach biography is good, but I assume at least a but outdated now.  The Harvard University Press edition (2003, tr. Ewald Osers), has especially nice paper, presumably because it has so many photos.

Maybe I should count My Ántonia (1918), too, but I have not finished it.  Czechs – Bohemians – in Nebraska.  Ántonia and her family sound just like my Bohemian great-uncle, so Willa Cather got that right.

Otto pretended not to be surprised at Ántonia’s behavior.  He only lifted his brows and said, “You can’t tell me anything about a Czech; I’m an Austrian.” (I.18.)

One thing that has surprised me about Kafka, in the biography and in his diaries, is how German, as opposed to Austrian, he is.  Of course he visits Vienna and reads Austrians, but he visits Germany more, he reads German authors more.  On the periphery of one culture, living in another, he constantly looks to others.

I have not seen a mention, in the Kafka stuff I have been reading, of the one purely Czech writer I read recently, Karel Čapek.  What a shame if Kafka never saw R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) (1920).  Will humanity ever tire of stories of robot’s destroying humanity?  It is one of the perfect science fiction conceits, transcending whatever specific story the author tells.  What I mean is that Čapek’s story suggests a profusion of other good stories.  Maybe once the robots actually do take over, that will be the end of it.

In Čapek’s play, an industrialist manufactures robots – androids, really – to replace human workers.  Everything goes well until the robots inevitably organize, destroy, and in the uplifting final page, replace humanity.

Only we have perished.  Our houses and machines will be in ruins, our systems will collapse, and the names of our great will fall away like autumn leaves.  Only you, love, will blossom on this rubbish heap and commit the seed of life to the winds.

So says the last human in the last lines of the play, as the robot Adam and Eve leave the stage.  How ridiculous this sounds will be very much in the hands of the actor and director.  I can imagine a wide range of tone.  I would love to see this play.

I understand that a number of Čapek’s novels are good?

I read the Penguin Classics edition, in Claudia Novack translation.


  1. Two days ago in Stockhom we saw an upscale coffee shop where there was not a human to be seen. Some very hi tech machines dispensed your chosen delight, other machines handed out pastries, all a bit scary.

  2. I wonder what it is like in Japan now, ten years after I was there. A different world may be almost here.

  3. I've read some Čapek and enjoyed his weird stories. The play I liked after R.U.R. is The White Plague. And I read The Absolute at Large:

  4. The War with the Newts is also very interesting. Giant newts are taking away the space currently occupied by humans, driving humankind into smaller and smaller spaces. When asked why, the newts reply "we have nothing against you, it's just that there are too many of us and our population keeps growing..."

  5. Newts is a must, but the ones Jean read sound like real fun, too. Terrific. Just what I wanted to know.

  6. Can I recommend Angelo Maria Ripellino's "Magic Prague"? Among many other things, he points out that the robots are Golems.

  7. Ah. Right, golems. Definitely.

    Thanks for the recommendation.

  8. I strongly recommend pretty much all of Capek's writing. War With the Newts might be the best-known after RUR, and it comes across as very prescient right now, because it's an apocalyptic novel in which human activity leads to a disastrous rise in sea levels. But I love Capek's short stories as well, especially the Tales from Two Pockets, which have been published by the Catbird Press. And Three Novels - a trilogy of novellas that sort of add up to one philosophical novel - is great as well. Capek is one of those rare authors who really feels like a friend to me - I like his writing, but I also like the personality that you sense through the writing.