Karel Čapek

Karel Čapek
Karel Čapek
Born 9 January 1890(1890-01-09)
Malé Svatoňovice, Bohemia, Austrian-Hungarian Empire (now the Czech Republic).
Died 25 December 1938(1938-12-25) (aged 48)
Occupation writer
Spouse Olga Scheinpflugová

Karel Čapek (Czech pronunciation: [ˈkarɛl ˈtʃapɛk] ( listen)) (January 9, 1890 – December 25, 1938) was Czech writer of the 20th century.



Born in 1890 in the Bohemian mountain village of Malé Svatoňovice to an overbearing, emotional mother and a distant yet adored father, Čapek was the youngest of three siblings. Čapek would maintain a close relationship with his brother Josef, living and writing with him throughout his adult life.[1]

Čapek became enamored with the visual arts in his teenage years, especially Cubism. He studied in Prague at Charles University and at the Sorbonne in Paris.[2] Exempted from military service due to the spinal problems that would haunt him his whole life, Čapek observed World War I from Prague. His political views were strongly affected by the war, and as a budding journalist he began to write on topics like nationalism and totalitarianism. Through social circles, the young writer developed close relationships with many of the political leaders of the nascent Czechoslovakian state. This included the Masaryk brothers, who would later become president and foreign secretary.

His early attempts at fiction were mostly plays written with brother Josef. Čapek's first international success was Rossum’s Univeral Robots, a dystopian work about a bad day at a factory populated with sentient androids. The play was translated into English in 1922, and was being performed in the UK and America by 1923. Throughout the 1920s, Čapek worked in many writing genres, producing both fiction and non-fiction, but worked primarily as a journalist.

Later, in the 1930s, Čapek's work focused on the threat of brutal national socialist and fascist dictatorships. His most productive years were during the The First Republic of Czechoslovakia (1918–1938). He wrote Talks with T. G. Masaryk[3]Masaryk was a Czech patriot, the first President of Czechoslovakia, and a regular guest at Čapek's Friday garden parties for leading Czech intellectuals. Čapek was also a member of Masaryk's Hrad political network. This extraordinary relationship between the writer and the political leader may be unique. He also became a member of International PEN and established, and was first president of, the Czechoslovak Pen Club.

Soon after 1938 it became clear that the Western allies (France, Great Britain) had failed to fulfill the agreements, and failed to defend Czechoslovakia against Adolf Hitler. Karel Čapek refused to leave his country – despite the fact that the Nazi Gestapo had named him Czechoslovakia's "public enemy number two." Though he suffered all his life from the condition spondyloarthritis. Karel Čapek died of double pneumonia on December 25, 1938 shortly after part of Czechoslovakia was annexed by Nazi Germany following the so-called Munich Agreement. Čapek is buried at the Vyšehrad cemetery in Prague. His brother Josef Čapek, a painter and writer, died in the Nazi Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.


K.Čapek wrote with intelligence and humor on a wide variety of subjects. His works are known for their interesting and precise description of reality. Čapek is renowned for his excellent work with the Czech language. He is known as a science fiction author, who wrote before science fiction became widely recognized as a separate genre. Capek can be considered as one of the founders of classical, non-hardcore European science fiction which aims on possible future (or alternative) social and human evolution on Earth. However, K.Čapek is comparable with Aldous Huxley and George Orwell as a speculative fiction writer, distinguishing his work from genre-specific hard science fiction.

House of Čapek brothers in Prague 10, Vinohrady

Many of his works discuss ethical aspects of industrial inventions and processes already anticipated in the first half of the 20th century. These include mass production, nuclear weapon, and post-human intelligent beings such as robots or salamanders.

Čapek also expressed fear from social disasters, dictatorship, violence, human stupidity, the unlimited power of corporations, and greed. Capek tried to find hope, and the way out. Čapek's literary heirs include Ray Bradbury, Salman Rushdie, Brian Aldiss, and Dan Simmons.

Ivan Klíma, in his biography of Čapek, notes his influence on modern Czech literature, as well as on the development of Czech as a written language. Čapek’s decision to use the vernacular, along with contemporaries like Jaroslav Hašek, was part of the early 20th century revival in written Czech. Klíma writes, "It is thanks to Čapek that the written Czech language grew closer to the language people actually spoke".[1] Čapek was also a translator, and his translations of French poetry into the language inspired a new generation of Czech poets.[1]

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

The grave of Karel Čapek and his spouse Olga Scheinpflugová in Vyšehrad cemetery

After World War II, Čapek's work was only reluctantly accepted by the communist government of Czechoslovakia, because during his life he had refused to accept communism as a viable alternative. He was the first in a series of influential non-marxist intellectuals who wrote a newspaper essay in a series called "Why I am not a Communist." [4]

In 2009 (70 years after his death), a book was published containing extensive correspondence by Karel Čapek, in which the writer discusses the subjects of pacifism and his conscientious objection to military service with lawyer Jindřich Groag from Brno. Until then, only a portion of these letters were known.[5]

Etymology of robot

The word robot comes from the word robota meaning literally serf labor, and, figuratively, "drudgery" or "hard work" in modern Czech and simply work in Slovak, Russian, Polish, archaic Czech and other Slavic languages. The word is documented in the Old Church Slavonic as rabota "servitude" ( but as "work" in contemporary Russian or Slovak), which in turn comes from the Indo-European root *orbh-. Robot is cognate with the German word Arbeiter (worker).

Karel Čapek introduced and made popular the frequently used international word robot, which first appeared in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) in 1921. While it is frequently thought that he was the originator of the word, he wrote a short letter in reference to an article in the Oxford English Dictionary etymology in which he named his brother, painter and writer Josef Čapek, as its actual inventor.[6] In an article in the Czech journal Lidové noviny in 1933, he also explained that he had originally wanted to call the creatures laboři (from Latin labor, work). However, he did not like the word, seeing it as too artificial, and sought advice from his brother Josef, who suggested "roboti" (robots in English).

An outline of Čapek's works

Works which can be considered early science fiction

  • 1920 - R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) (Rossumovi univerzální roboti) - one of the first usages of artificial human-like beings in art and literature and are manufactured by biotechnology not mechanics.
  • 1922 - The Makropulos Affair (Věc Makropulos) - discussion about human immortality, not really from a science-fiction point of view
  • 1922 - The Absolute at Large (Továrna na absolutno) - can be interpreted as vision of consumer society
  • 1922 - Krakatit - plot includes prediction of nuclear-weapon-like explosive
  • 1936 - War with the Newts (Válka s mloky) - dystopian satire

Anti-Nazi plays from the 1930s

  • 1937 - The White Disease (Bílá nemoc) - earlier translated as Power and Glory
  • 1938 - The Mother (Matka)

Other works

  • Stories from a Pocket and Stories from Another Pocket (Povídky z jedné a z druhé kapsy) — a common name for a cycle of short detective stories (5–10 pages long) that shared common attitude and characters, including The Last Judgement.
  • How it is Made — satiric novels on the life of theatre, newspaper and film studio.
  • The Gardener's Year (Zahradníkův rok, 1929) is exactly what it says it is: a year-round guide to gardening, charmingly written, with illustrations by his brother Josef Čapek.[7]
  • Pictures from the Insects' Life (Ze života hmyzu), also known as Insect Play or The Life of the Insects, with Josef Čapek, a satire in which insects stand in for various human characteristics: the flighty, vain butterfly, the obsequious, self serving dung beetle.
  • Apocryphal Tales (Kniha apokryfů, 1932, 2nd edition 1945),[8] short stories about literary and historical characters, such as Hamlet, a struggling playwright, Pontius Pilate, Don Juan, Alexander arguing with his teacher Aristotle, and Sarah and Abraham attempting to name ten good people so Sodom can be saved: "What do you have against Namuel? He's stupid but he's pious."
  • Nine Fairy Tales: And One More Thrown in for Good Measure (Devatero Pohádek a ještě jedna od Josefa Čapka jako přívažek, 1932)
  • Dashenka, or the Life of a Puppy (Dášenka čili Život štěněte, 1933)[9]

Travel books

  • Letters from Italy (Italské listy, 1923)[10]
  • Letters from England (Anglické listy, 1924)[11]
  • Letters from Spain (Výlet do Španěl, 1930)[12]
  • Letters from Holland (Obrázky z Holandska, 1932)[13]
  • Travels in the North (Cesta na Sever, 1936)[14]

Selected bibliography

  • The Absolute at Large, 1922 (in Czech), 1927, The Macmillan Company, New York, translator uncredited. Also published June 1975, Garland Publishing ISBN 0-8240-1403-0,
  • Apocryphal Tales, 1945 (in Czech), May 1997, Catbird Press Paperback ISBN 0-945774-34-6, Translated by Norma Comrada
  • An Atomic Phantasy: Krakatit or simply Krakatit, 1924 (in Czech)
  • Nine Fairy Tales: And One More Thrown in for Good Measure, October 1996, Northwestern Univ Press Paperback Reissue Edition, ISBN 0-8101-1464-X. Illustrated by Josef Capek, Translated by Dagmar Herrmann
  • R.U.R, March 1970, Pocket Books ISBN 0-671-46605-4
  • Tales from Two Pockets 1928-9 (in Czech), 1994, Catbird Press Paperback, ISBN 0-945774-25-7
  • Short story collection, Mystery (nsf) Translated by Norma Comrada June 1994, Catbird Press Paperback ISBN 0-945774-25-7
  • Talks With T.G. Masaryk Non-fiction. Biography of T.G. Masaryk, founder of Czechoslovakia.
  • Three Novels: Hordubal, Meteor, An Ordinary Live, 1933–34, Translated by M. and R. Weatherall, 1990, Catbird Press
  • Toward the Radical Center: A Karel Capek Reader. Collection of stories, plays and columns. Edited by Peter Kussi, Catbird Press ISBN 0-945774-07-9
  • War with the Newts 1936 (in Czech), May 1967, Berkley Medallion Edition Paperback. Translated by M. & R. Weatherall, March 1990, Catbird Press paperback, ISBN 0-945774-10-9, October 1996, Northwestern University Press paperback ISBN 0-8101-1468-2

Another English translation by Ewald Osers ISBN 978-0-945774-10-5

  • "Cross Roads," 2002, Catbird Press, ISBN 0-945774-06-9 cloth; 0-945774-07-0 trade paperback. Translation by Norma Comrada of "Boží muka" (1917) and "Trapné povídky" (1921).

Čapek biographies in English

  • "Karel Čapek: An Essay," Alexander Matuška, George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1964. Translation from the Slovak by Cathryn Alan of "Člověk protí zkaze: Pokus o Karla Čapka."
  • "Karel Čapek," by William E. Harkins, Columbia University Press, 1962.
  • "Karel Čapek: In Pursuit of Truth, Tolerance and Trust," Bohunka R. Bradbrook, Sussex Academic Press, 1998, ISBN 1-898723-85-0.
  • "Karel Čapek: Life and Work," Ivan Klíma, Catbird Press, 2002, ISBN 0-945774-53-2. Translation from the Czech by Norma Comrada of "Velký věk chce mít tež velké mordy: Život a dílo Karla Čapka."

Čapek in popular culture

  • On the science fiction cartoon show Futurama (season 1, episode 5 - "Fear of a Bot Planet"), a planet inhabited entirely by robots was named "Chapek 9", as a reference to Karel Čapek's coining of the term "robot".
  • In the Star Trek episode "Requiem for Methuselah", the android Rayna Kapec was named in honor of Čapek.
  • A recurring character in the cartoon show Batman: The Animated Series was named Karl Rossum. He was an inventor that specialized in robots.
  • The story "Big Robots" in Judge Dredd Megazine (#257 - ?) features a Mega-City One tower block named "Karel Čapek" which turned out to be a giant robot.
  • At least two computer programming languages were named for Čapek:
    • KAREL is the programming language for FANUC robots.
    • Karel is a teaching tool, intended to introduce programming to beginners; students instruct a robot (also named Karel) how to perform various tasks.
  • In the computer game Red Faction there is a character named Dr. Capek, who is involved in experiments with nanotechnology.
  • The Japanese H-game R.U.R.U.R. uses "Čapek" as a term for a specific type of robot: biological machines made from flesh mixed in a vat with nanomachines.
  • There is a Dr Capek in Heinlein's DOUBLE STAR.
  • On the TV show Dollhouse, the parent corporation is named Rossum.
  • In the video game Mass Effect 2, one mission requires the player to shut down a factory which produces defective robots on a planet called Capek.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Klima, Ivan (2001). Karel Čapek: Life and Work. New Haven, CT: Catbird Press. pp. 191-200. ISBN 0-945774-53-2. 
  2. ^ Tobranova-Kuhnnova, Sarka (1988). Believe in People: The essential Karel Capek. London: Faber and Faber. pp. xvii - xxxvi. ISBN 978-0-571-23162-1. 
  3. ^ Talks with T. G. Masaryk at Google Books
  4. ^ K. Čapek, Why I am not a Communist?, Přítomnost 4 December 1924.
  5. ^ „Vojáku Vladimíre...“: Karel Čapek, Jindřich Groag a odpírači vojenské služby, Nakladatelství Zdeněk Bauer, Prague 2009.
  6. ^ Karel Capek - Who did actually invent the word "robot" and what does it mean? at capek.misto.cz
  7. ^ The Gardener's Year at Google Books
  8. ^ Apocryphal Tales at Google Books
  9. ^ Dashenka, or the Life of a Puppy at Google Books
  10. ^ Letters from Italy at Google Books
  11. ^ Letters from England at Google Books
  12. ^ Letters from Spain at Google Books
  13. ^ Letters from Holland at Google Books
  14. ^ Travels in the North at Google Books

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  • Karel Capek — Büste Čapeks am Schloss Chyše Karel Čapek [ˈtʃapɛk] (* 9. Januar 1890 in Malé Svatoňovice; † 25. Dezember 1938 in Prag) ist einer der wichtigsten tschechischen Schriftsteller des 20 …   Deutsch Wikipedia

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