Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Čapek, Karel

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(1890-1938) Czech writer active in many genres, much of whose occasional work remains untranslated or hard to obtain in English or other tongues. His most important plays and novels, however, have long been influential throughout the Western world, where his fertile, feverish wit, his cosmopolitanism, and his dark questioning of the nature of 20th-century progress may have helped disguise the fact that his best-known works are either sf or fantasy. Famous sf by KČ includes the play R.U.R. (1920; trans Paul Selver with Nigel Playfair as R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots): A Fantastic Melodrama 1923 UK; rev trans Selver alone 1923 US), and Vàlka s Mloky (1936; trans M and R Weatherall as War With the Newts 1937 UK; new trans Ewald Osers 1985 UK). His fantasy is less familiar.

KČ began to publish short stories, mostly with his brother Josef Čapek (1887-1945), none translated but several seemingly fantasy. More widely available tales are collected in: Trapné povídky (coll 1921; trans Francis P Marchant, Dora Round, F P Casey and O Vocadloas as Money and Other Stories 1929 UK), in Tales from Two Pockets (coll; cut trans 1932 UK; full trans Norma Comrada 1994 US), which assembles Povïdky z jedné kapsy ["Tales from One Pocket"] (coll 1929) and Povïdky z druhé kapsy ["Tales from the Other Pocket"] (coll 1929), only the uncut translation containing fantasy material; Devatero Pohádek (coll 1932; trans as Fairy Tales 1933 UK; new trans Dagmar Herrmann vt Nine Fairy Tales 1990 US), Fairytales for older children; and Kniha apokryfu (coll 1945; trans Dora Round as Apocryphal Stories 1949 UK). Flickers of Allegory-like significance sharpen the texture of many of these stories, though the ultimate effect of these and other "estrangements" from normal Reality is of dis-ease and premonition. The supernatural in KČ is a signal of instability – mental, cultural, political – and it is both easy and almost certainly accurate to read much of his fiction as consciously predictive of the catastrophe of World War II.

Perhaps the most brilliant of his plays, and the only unquestionable fantasy drama among them, is Že života hmyzu (1921; trans Paul Selver as And So Ad Infinitum (The World of the Insects) 1923 UK; cut trans Owen Davis vt as The World We Live In 1933 US; commonly known as The Insect Play; best and first unexpurgated trans [Act 2 only] Tatiana Firkusny and Robert T Jones as "From the Life of the Insects" in Toward the Radical Center: A Karel Čapek Reader coll trans 1990 US) with Josef Čapek, which scarifyingly mocks human life and pretensions through a series of Beast-Fable episodes in which various insects perform vaudeville versions of human behaviour at the edge of extinction.

With the exception of the weak Adam strvořitel (1927; trans Dora Round as Adam the Creator 1927 UK) with Josef Čapek, the rest of KC's plays and novels are best understood in sf terms. However extravagant their plots, KČ thought that he was describing possible nightmares of history. He was correct. [JC]

Karel Čapek


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.