The Gardener's Year by Karel Capek, trans. Geoffrey Newsome

Tender shoots in a seedling democracy
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The Independent Culture

Although now largely forgotten, except for creating the "robot" in his play RUR, Karel Capek had an international reputation between the wars, when the fledgling democracy of Czechoslovakia was so widely admired. Unfortunately, the country had been cobbled together at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 by well-meaning powers who carelessly overlooked the existence of the Sudeten Germans until this was sharply brought to their attention by Hitler a few years later. In March 1939, when Hitler entered Prague, some of them were to be seen kissing the tyre-marks left by his car in the snow.

Although ethnic generalisations are always risky, there is often something both stodgy and naive about the Czechs - although it was unfashionable to say so at the time, and unkind after their country had been trampled underfoot first by the Germans and then, for much longer, by the Russians. Certainly, they tend to lack, and resent, the heroism and panache of their Polish neighbours. Earlier, under the Austrians, they had been perhaps arrogantly regarded as better servants than masters, even of themselves or, apparently, of their gardens - which, according to Capek, were usually in the process of getting out of control.

His little book first appeared in 1931. This new translation is well suited to what the foreword calls, with some justification, "a gentle, witty and profound odyssey through the year", even though the profundity is somewhat exaggerated in the translator's afterword. The book's virtues can best be indicated by quotation: thus February "by day wheedles buds out of bushes and at night scorches them".

Capek's enthusiasm is particularly attractive when the snowdrops appear: "I tell you, no Palm of Victory or Tree of Knowledge or Laurel of Glory is more beautiful than this little white, fragile cup on a pale stalk waving in the rough wind." When spring comes and hard tillage is required, "you go to bed with a spade, get up with the lark and glorify the sun and the heavenly drizzle." But he can also be clumsily naive and even pointless, especially in the so-called Botanical Chapter. And what is one to make of his statement that, back in January, "the gardener mostly cultivates the weather"?

Capek will be forgiven for these shortcomings by those who are captivated by the wayward charm of his brighter fancies. A certain individuality is also provided by the line drawings, (which may have served as inspiration for the work of our own great Haro Hobson) by the author's brother Josef, who also collaborated with him on several plays including The Makropoulos Case. In the latter, the musical genius of Janacek later made one forget the improbability, even by operatic standards, of the whole business.

In this collection of magazine articles, a certain amount of repetition is perhaps to be expected. The Gardener's Year contains some charming passages, as well as rather too many lists of quite familiar plants about which the author has nothing in particular to say. But the overall effect is rather twee, a useful word which has not been heard of lately, as Capek might say.

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