The birth of the robot

Karel Capek's urgent visions retain their grip. The novelist Ivan Klima celebrates his Bohemian ancestor
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The Independent Culture
In January 1921, the National Theatre in Prague, the foremost theatre in the country, performed a Karel Capek play with the strange title R.U.R. The author was known to be a talented young writer who had already written several plays together with his brother and one on his own, a moderately successful if rather traditional piece. The theme of his new play, however, astounded first Czech and then foreign audiences, for it dealt with synthetic people - "robots" - and their revolt against the human race. The play was a hit around the globe and soon brought its 31-year-old author international acclaim (its non-human heroes held such fascination for the contemporary world that the word "robot," coined by Capek, has been assimilated by numerous languages). With his drama about the robots, Capek inaugurated a series of fantastic and utopian works: a novel, The Factory of the Absolute, and a comedy, The Makropulos Affair - on the Shavian theme of longevity - both appeared in 1922, and the novel Krakalite in 1924. After a long hiatus, he returned to utopian themes with the famous novel War with the Newts in 1936.

He was born at a fertile point in the history of European literature. In a span of less than seven years, the bit of land that constitutes Bohemia witnessed the births of three writers who were to achieve worldwide renown. Jarolsav Hasek was born in April 1883, Franz Kafka not quite three months later, and Karel Capek on 9 January 1890. Although all three came from similar middle-class backgrounds, and, to a great extent, shared a common personal and generational experience, one would be hard put to find three more distinct human and literary types. Kafka was a quiet, orderly and introverted recluse who seldom ventured beyond his circle of Jewish friends; his terse, often unfinished, but always imaginative stories related for the most part to the special reality of his inner world and were written in perfect Prague-style German. Hasek was an eccentric, irresponsible Bohemian anarchist and carouser surrounded by a bunch of equally irresponsible boon companions and drunkards; he cracked out hundreds of carelessly written humouresques that caricatured the contemporary world. Only in The Good Soldier Schweik did he step out of the shadows. Here his language too was transformed into brilliant renditions of the vulgar speech of the people. Finally, there was Karel Capek. At a very early age - he was just 28 in 1918, when the Czechoslovak Republic came into being - he resolved to take partial responsibility for the intellectual and moral level of the new state and brought together the country's intellectual elite (even President of the Republic TG Masaryk attended the regular Friday gatherings held in Capek's home). His works of fantasy and philosophical prose, like his regular newspaper columns, were written in a Czech that was simple and precise, yet rich.

At the turn of the century, Bohemia and Prague in particular, witnessed the development of a rich cultural life. Not long before, the prevailing atmosphere had been rather narrowly provincial. After a protracted period in which Czech culture and even the Czech language had barely remained alive, it took the better part of the 19th century merely to ensure their right to exist. Everything - the Czech Museum, Czech theatre, Czech politics, the Academy, Czech publishers - was just getting established, often in a tenacious struggle with authorities. The patriotic public had to have been inspired by these active manifestations of national identity. But the days of this sort of uncritical patriotism were slowly drawing to an end. A new generation of the Czech intelligentsia vowed to judge its efforts not by domestic but by European standards. Czech- German Prague gradually became a cultural centre in which Czechs too could play an important role. A number of outstanding people came to the university; there was a tremendous rush of publishing activity (literary and artistic journals alone numbered several dozen); and presses vied in the release of new publications in both original and translated form. In those days, there was not a single important foreign writer whose latest work could not soon be found in Czech translation.

Karel Capek did not arrive in Prague until the end of his studies at the gymnasium. He had spent his childhood in Upice, a small town in the hills of eastern Bohemia, where his father was a doctor. Capek often remembered his country childhood in his feuilletons, tales, and other short prose. The world of his longer novels and plays seems to be altogether different. But alongside the philosopher and intellectual who sees all the way to civilisation's tragic end, one readily senses in these works a man of the country who watches, in anguish and amazement, the collapse of age-old values and established ways of life, finding danger and portents of destruction in modern man's estrangement from the natural order.

At the age of 19, Capek enrolled in the Philosophy Faculty at Charles University (in subsequent years, he studied at the Philosophy Faculty in Berlin and pursued German and English philology at the Sorbonne). It was at this time that he began to publish his first short works of prose. Like his first plays, he wrote these together with his older brother Josef. The early prose certainly bespeaks a scintillating spirit and literary and linguistic gifts, but we do not find in it what was later to become so characteristic of Capek's work. There is none of his philosophical reflection, none of his splendid storytelling, none of his fantastic and anxious vision. The most powerful experience for Karel Capek and his generation, as well as their greatest shock, still lay ahead - the First World War.

The suddenness and scope of the war had a searing effect on Europe's young generation. Artists whose works had often shone with admiration for the human spirit and its technical achievements suddenly stood face to face with rampant destruction. Like Franz Kafka, Karel Capek never experienced combat firsthand. For once, his physical infirmity (rheumatism and a painful gout of the vertebrae plagued him all his life) brought him some good: he was excused from joining the ranks. However, unlike the totally self-absorbed Kafka and the easy-going Hasek, Capek experienced the catastrophe of the war with the greatest sense of urgency. On the one hand, he strove in his journalistic and shorter prose work to help form the spiritual climate of the new republic (there were practically no important events that failed to arouse his interest or impel him to state an opinion). On the other hand, in his novels and dramas he created apocalyptic images and moved his plots toward calamities that threatened mankind's existence.

Of course there were many writers who addressed society prophetically and urged it to follow the "correct" path. Perhaps never had so many manifestos been written, so many political banalities set to verse, so many topical, politicising pamphlets published to assert claims of great and engaged activity as in those post-war years. Many of Capek's literary friends adopted socialist slogans, at least for the time being, in the form in which they arrived from revolutionary Russia, slogans promising that the revolution would be followed by a new, more just and classless society which would put an end to violence and even to the state. Capek was too sensitive and responsible to accept the notion that, after all the recent violence, new violence, though now revolutionary, could solve anything.

Capek himself tells about the origin of his novel War with the Newts: "It was last spring, when the world was looking rather bleak economically, and even worse politically - apropos of I don't know what, I have written the sentence: `You mustn't think that the evolution that gave rise to us was the only evolutionary possibility on this planet.' And that was it. That sentence was the reason I wrote War with the Newts." "It is quite thinkable," Capek reasons, "that cultural development could be shaped through the mediation of another animal species. If the biological conditions were favorable, some civilisation not inferior to our own could arise in the depths of the sea ... If some species other than man were to attain that level we call civilisation, what do you think - would it do the same stupid things mankind has done? Would it fight the same wars? Would it invite the same historical calamities? What would we say if some animal other than man declared that its education and its numbers gave it the soul right to occupy the entire world and hold sway over all of creation? It was this confrontation with human history, and with the most pressing topical history, that forced me to sit down and write War with the Newts."

A multitude of political allusions (the figure of the Chief Salamander, whose name was "actually Andreas Schultze" and who "had served someplace during the World War as a line soldier" certainly calls to mind the leader of the Nazi Reich, Adolf Hitler; the chapter on the book of the royal philosopher paraphrases the Nazi theories of the time) led some contemporary critics to conclude that Capek had abandoned his relativism to write an anti-Fascist pamphlet. This view, incidentally, has been supported to the present day by official Czech and Soviet literary historians.

Human civilisation has indeed spread throughout the planet, but people show no evidence of being able to treat anything other than particulaconcerns; they have no means of considering, let alone controlling the consequences of their own actions. Even Capek's newts are marked by their encounter with people and their "culture." This is why, with no precautions, they begin to destroy dry land as soon as they find it to be in their interests to do so. People committed to "higher" and "suprapersonal" concerns work together with the newts to bring about their own destruction. "All the factories" cooperate. "All the banks. All nations."

In 1937, in the Soviet anthology Den mira (Day of Peace) edited by Maxim Gorky, Capek wrote: "Today, I completed the last chapter of my utopian novel. The main character of this chapter is nationalism. The content is quite simple: the destruction of the world and its people. What destroys us will not be a cosmic catastrophe but mere reasons of state, economics prestige and so on."

Capek's entire work testifies to the contradiction faced by his seeing, knowing creative spirit, a spirit that longs to purify and enlighten the world but fears its own imperfection and limitations, fears what people will do with its visions. This dilemma will undoubtedly haunt mankind forever. Capek's work illuminates it with the power of personal experience.

This is an edited extract from Ivan Klima's introduction to Karel Capek's `War with the Newts', published this week by Penguin (pounds 7.99)