Book Review: Believe in People – The Essential Karel Capek

Selected and translated by Sárka Tobrmanová-Kühnová
With a preface by John Carey

(Faber and Faber) £12.99

Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams


‘The greatest belief would be to believe in people,’ is the quote from the Czech writer, Karel Capek, which opens this collection of his journalism and letters which has been selected and translated into English for the first time by Sárka Tobrmanová-Kühnová. The line is taken from his 1922 novel, A Factory to Manufacture the Absolute, his vision of consumer society, which alongside a number of his other works, is seen as an early example of, though the terms had not then been coined, of science fiction and speculative fiction. Which include, probably his best known work internationally, RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots), the play which premiered in 1921 and gave the world the word, ‘robot’, inspired by the Czech word, ‘robota’, which relates to feudal forced labour. Though Capek was keen to point out, as an article from The People’s Paper included in Believe in People states, that it was his brother the artist, writer and poet, Josef Capek, who created the word.

Capek’s belief in people, his avowed humanism, remain undiminished throughout Believe in People, which instil the writings with both a wonderfully inspiring positivity and also an increasing poignancy, as the chronology of each section leads the reader through the all too brief life of the first, liberal democratic republic of Czechoslovakia, from it’s birth in 1918 to the Munich Agreement which sounded its death knell in 1938.

Even in the face of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s radio address infamously labelling Czechoslovakia as “a far-away country” made up of “people of whom we know nothing”, which pre-empted Britain’s signing of the pact with France, Germany, and Italy, in Czechoslovakia’s absence, Capek remained optimistic and as the final piece in the collection, Greetings, demonstrates he continued to believe in, and hold no malice towards the peoples of the signatory nations of the Munich Agreement, and counter to Chamberlains’ words, he found it all too easy bring to mind images of ordinary people in Britain, France, Germany and Italy, going about their day-to-day activities.

“Indeed,” he writes, “one is cross with many, and keeps saying to oneself , what has happened can never be forgotten: how can we possibly communicate with one another in the midst of this unprecedented distance and alienation? And then you think of, say, England, and suddenly you see the little red house in Kent before you. The old gentleman is still trimming the bushes and the girl is pedalling away swiftly and straight. And see you’d like to greet them. How do you do? How do you do? Nice weather, isn’t it? Yes, very fine. So you see, that’s it, and you feel lighter.”

Very sadly, the same day that Greetings was published Capek died from pneumonia, though his friend Dr Karel Steinbach, who was present when died, as Tobrmanová-Kühnová quotes in her introduction, wrote, “As a doctor I know that he died because in those days there were no antibiotics and sulpha drugs, but those who say that Munich killed him also have a great deal of the truth.”

Though had he lived, as a critic of both fascism and communism life would have been very difficult for Capek in the years that followed. Indeed, as Tobrmanová-Kühnová states, when the Nazis arrived in Prague on 15th March 1939, “he was said to be number three on the Gestapo list, and they arrived at his house that same day to find that he had been dead for nearly three months.” His brother, Josef, who had also criticised fascism and Hitler, was arrested, and died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945.

It would be another fifty years until Czechoslovakia could return to being a liberal democracy through the Velvet Revolution of November 1989, lead by Václav Havel. Karel Capek was a key inspiration on Havel, for whom, as he is to many Czechs, as Tobrmanová-Kühnová writes, “he is not only a master of the word but a moral example.” Believe in People is a wonderfully engaging collection, reflective, funny, inspiring, and philosophical. It provides a fascinating insight to the excitement and joie de vivre inherent in the birth of nation, and the devastation at its loss and betrayal, whilst also bursting with insight and wisdom that is as relevant to peoples of  all countries today as when the words were first written.


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