Čapek, Karel, 1890-1938

Portrait

Biographical note

One of the most important Czech writers of the 20th century.

Karel Čapek was born in Malé Svatonovice, then Austria-Hungary, now Czech Republic.

Karel Čapek wrote with intelligence and humor on a wide variety of subjects. His works are known not only for interesting and exact descriptions of reality, but also for his excellent work with the Czech language. He is perhaps best known as a science fiction author, who wrote long before science fiction became established as a separate genre. He can be counted as one of the founders of classical non-hardcore European science fiction, which focuses on possible future (or alternative) social and human evolution on Earth, rather than technically advanced stories of space travel. However, it is best to class him with Aldous Huxley and George Orwell as a mainstream literary figure who used science-fiction motifs.

Many of his works discuss ethical and other aspects of the revolutionary inventions and processes that were already expected in the first half of 20th century. These included mass production, atomic weapons, and post-human intelligent beings such as robots or intelligent salamanders.

In this, Čapek was also expressing fear of upcoming social disasters, dictatorship, violence, and unlimited power of corporations, and trying to find some hope for human beings. Čapek's literary heirs include Ray Bradbury, Salman Rushdie, Brian Aldiss and Dan Simmons.

His other books and plays include detective stories, novels, fairy tales and theatre plays, and even a book on gardening. The most important works try to resolve the problem of epistemology, or "What is knowledge?": The Tales from Two Pockets, and first of all the trilogy of novels Hordubal, Meteor and An Ordinary Life.

Later, in the 1930s, Čapek's work focused on the threat of brutal Nazi and fascist (but also communist) dictatorships. His most productive years corresponded with the existence of the first republic of Czechoslovakia [1918-1938]. He wrote Talks with T.G. Masaryk, a Czech patriot and first President of Czechoslovakia and a regular guest at Čapek's Friday garden parties for Czech patriots. This extraordinary relationship between the great author and the great political leader is perhaps unique, and is known to have been an inspiration to Václav Havel. He also became a member of International PEN.

Karel Čapek died in the December preceding the outbreak of World War II and was interred in the Vysehrad cemetery in Prague. Soon after it became clear that the Western allies had refused to help defend Czechoslovakia against Hitler, he refused to eat or leave his country and died of double pneumonia. The Gestapo had ranked him as "public enemy number 2" in Czechoslovakia. His brother Josef Čapek, a painter and also a writer, died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

After the war, Čapek's work was only reluctantly accepted by the Communist regime of Czechoslovakia, since during his life he had refused to believe in a communist utopia as a viable alternative to the threat of Nazi domination.

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