Čapek (cha-PEK)

So I’m back, after something of a pause. I went on a joint two-week trip to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in September, and saw so much and did so much that when I got back and started thinking about writing some of it down in here it quite overwhelmed me. I may still write some of it up – I kept a diary while I was away – but I think it’ll be more in terms of manageable anecdotes than a full blown account. I haven’t the time to process the latter, at the moment.

I’ve been reading a book of Karel Čapek’s non-fiction, called Believe In People. It’s mainly his journalism, with a few of his letters to his wife as well, and it’s very interesting. His subject matter ranges from gardening to theatre to politics, all handled in a light, self-deprecating manner that enormously endears you to him. The stand-out pieces are his work on the so-called Čapekian generation, and ‘Why I am Not A Communist’; the former are fascinating portraits of his generation of Central European intellectuals in the interwar period, as well as a brilliant reflection on their lives before the war; the latter a startling deconstruction of the Communist ideology which manages to be both sober and passionately felt at the same time.

Also interesting, for fans of etymology, is his account of the origin of the word ‘robot’. Čapek’s most international claim to fame is as the inventor of the word robot, which first appears in his play Rossum’s Universal Robots. The word has connotations of the Old Slavonic rabota, meaning ‘servitude’, or ‘work’ in modern Russian. In a short article Čapek recounts that he had been thinking of calling the automatons in his play ‘laborators’ or ‘labori’ but when speaking to his brother, the artist and writer Josef Čapek, Josef suggested ‘robots’ instead.

But Čapek’s range extends far beyond that of science fiction. In fact, I would defy anyone not to find something of interest in this collection. And, given this germ-stricken time of year, I think his suggestion of having three-minute coughing breaks in theatrical performances should be implemented at once.

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