In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads the charming short stories of Karel Čapek
The modern meaning of the word ‘robot’ has its origins in a 1920 play by Czech writer Karel Čapek. The play, titled R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), begins in a factory which manufactures artificial people, the ‘universal robots’ of the play’s title. The robots are designed to serve humans and work for them, but the robots eventually turn on their masters, wiping out the human race (shades, or rather a foreshadowing, of The Terminator here). This sense of ‘robot’ is taken from the earlier one defined above – namely, the Czech for ‘slave worker’ or ‘drudge’.
Karel Čapek himself didn’t coin the word. The word ‘robot’ was in existence before he wrote his play. But nor did Čapek come up with the idea of taking the word ‘robot’ and using it to describe the man-made droids that feature in his play. He originally called them labori, from the Latin for ‘work’, but it was his brother, Josef Čapek, who suggested roboti. Josef, himself a gifted artist, would later write a volume of poems from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in which he was interned. In April 1945, just weeks before the end of the war, he became one of the 6 million Jews who were murdered in Hitler’s Final Solution.
Most readers who know the name Karel Čapek associate it with robots and little else. Yet Čapek was also the author of some charming short stories and skits, which were collected together as Apocryphal Stories (Modern Classics). The titles give an idea of Čapek’s typical subject matter: ‘The Punishment of Prometheus’, ‘Thersites’, ‘Alexander the Great’, ‘Lazarus’, ‘Pilate’s Evening’, ‘Don Juan’s Confession’. Essentially, the Apocryphal Stories are revisionist history, offering a satirical take on classic figures from history, myth, and literature (others to feature include Hamlet, King Lear’s Goneril, and Romeo and Juliet) and viewing them from a new perspective. At its best, this collection of short, witty tales is great fun, revisiting characters from hundreds if not thousands of years ago and treating them with a ‘modern’ eye.
Much of this ‘revisionism’ involves focusing on some gap or other in our usual conception of the story: we know that Prometheus was punished for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to man by being chained to the Caucasus and condemned to have his liver pecked out by an eagle; his liver would then grow back overnight in time for the whole cycle of pain to begin again the next day.
But what sort of conversations might the gods have had when deciding on Prometheus’ fate? In ‘The Punishment of Prometheus’, we are eavesdroppers on the Senate meeting at which men – not gods – discuss how Prometheus should be dealt with for ‘inventing fire’. The story humanises Prometheus and his self-righteous punishers (who are reduced from gods to merely the godly), but it also invites parallels with more recent, and more real, clashes between the authorities and scientists whose inventions and discoveries have advanced human progress: Galileo and the Catholic Church in the seventeenth century, but Darwin and the Victorian Anglican church of the nineteenth, to offer two of the most prominent examples.
At the end of the story, one of the men who has condemned Prometheus to death is asked by his young son why he did so. The man tells him, ‘Where should we be if anyone who liked was allowed to come along with great, new inventions unpunished?’ He then goes back to admiring the roast mutton that has been served up for dinner. The story is from 1932 but it seems eerily to foreshadow the attitudes of many Nazi officers, who when in uniform were capable of unspeakable atrocities, such as killing Jewish children in the most violent way, but who then went home and became ordinary family men to their sons and daughters.
The late great Sir Terry Pratchett used fantasy as a vehicle for satire – satire of both fantasy literature itself and of our own modern world. Much of the humour was generated from the clash between these two very different worlds, and seem to have been born of Pratchett’s own impulse to ask questions: what would Conan the Barbarian, Robert E. Howard’s mighty warrior, have been like as an old man? What happens the day after the war is won? What about all the administration that is a part of warfare but tends to get left out of much sword and sorcery? In many ways, Čapek’s Apocryphal Stories (Modern Classics) are a curious precursor to Pratchett’s comic fantasy. The stories in this volume poke fun at the grand myths and stories that have survived generations and millennia, but they also raise questions about the real world in which we live.
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Oliver Tearle is a lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.