Thursday, 26 November 2009

Memorial to the Čapek Brothers, Náměstí Míru

Karel Čapek and his brother Josef are two of the most significant writers of the twentieth century, and not only because of their invention of the word 'robot' (see yesterday's post). As observers and gentle satirists of society and humanity they are without peer.

An excellent start for all English readers is Karel Čapek's book 'Letters from England' which he wrote after visiting Britain at the invitation of the newly-formed International PEN organization of writers. His sharply wry observations are delivered with typical humour: 'The English home is tennis and warm water, a gong summoning you to lunch, books, meadows, comfort which is selected, fixed and blessed by the centuries ... a hospitality and formality as comfortable as a dressing gown.'

But among the delightful sketches of sheep and cows, and the comical pen-portraits of famous writers, is a sincerely-felt recognition of something more unfathomable and less available for Czechs: 'Wherever on this planet ideals of personal freedom and dignity apply, there you will find the cultural inheritance of England.' No wonder Čapek was considered highly dangerous by the Nazis.

British conservative philosopher Roger Scruton has said of this little book that it is 'one of the seminal documents of Central European culture, and among the most influential books of the twentieth century'. Praise indeed.

Sadly, neither brother survived into the second half of that century. Karel died of pneumonia on Christmas Day 1938, three months before Hitler's occupation of Prague; his older brother died, probably in April 1945, in Belsen concentration camp. The monument, by sculptor Pavel Opočensky, an artist with a somewhat colourful reputation, was erected in 1995.

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