An Explosive Discovery: Beers, Babel and Blowing Nuclear Chunks

on Thursday, March 10, 2011
My Czech cousin was just in town. He barely speaks English. I don't speak Czech. And yet we get on like a house on fire. Years ago, I visited Prague and we spent a rather hilarious evening downing Pilsners until he had to drag me home over his shoulder, stopping every five minutes to let me decorate the 13th century sidewalks with carrot chunks. It was one of the most enjoyable nights I can't remember having in my entire life.

Having just discovered VB, Ludvik is disappointed that I gave up the grog since we last met. I suspect he thinks less of me. Thankfully I still have my love of Czech literature to fall back on. The other day we got to talking about Karel Capek, probably my favourite writer from pre-War Czechoslovakia. I count his War With The Newts among my top ten books of all time. Ludvik likes it but insists Capek's true genius was best on show in "Povídky z jedné a z druhé kapsy". Except he didn't know what that was in English. He kept pointing at his hips. Our usually functional game of conversational charades had hit a wall. Cue Wikipedia. We scanned the selected bibliography and found it was Tales From Two Pockets, a wonderful collection of short detective tales that had been serialised in the Czechoslovak papers in the late 1920's and early 30's.

That is all by the by. What was most exciting for me was the discovery of a book of which I had never heard. On Wikipedia of all places! Somehow, Krakatit (An Atomic Phantasy), first published in 1922, had slipped under my radar. Perhaps it just hadn't been translated into English. Some further research revealed that it had indeed been translated, but in the late 1940's, and has been out of print since then. I instantly hopped onto Abebooks and searched for a second-hand English copy. It cost me nineteen bucks and arrived, sans dust jacket and a little worse for wear, five days later. Thank you interweb. Sometimes I do not hate you.

Now I know how people get all worked up about Kafka's prophetic abilities. But as much as I love ol' Franz, when it came to true prophesy, Capek was the man. With his brother Joseph, he invented the word Robot (in R.U.R. -Rossum's Universal Robots). He foresaw artificial intelligence and the advent of consumer society in The Absolute at Large. And in Krakatit, he pretty much mapped out the trajectory of the arms race that would only start ten years after he died and then go on to cripple the world for the better part of forty years. In the book, Prokop discovers a substance that even in the smallest concentrations can blow up entire cities. He calls it Krakatit. Governments and corporations vie for his affections, trying to get him to hand over its formula. When he refuses, it all turns rather nasty. Like all great Czech literature, Krakatit has its fair share of claustrophobic weirdness. Prokop teeters on the brink of insanity as each new conspiracy adds a layer to the one that came before. Yet, for all its intellectual rigour and narrative complexity, the book remains a fun, easy read. Capek wasn't just a litsnob's writer. He wrote for the people. He had an uncanny ability to make you laugh and think in equal doses, without ever questioning the incongruity that might seem apparent in less capable hands.

As a forewarning of nuclear power and the lengths people will go to control it, Krakatit has no equal. I know it will be hard to track down a copy, but if you can I really recommend you do. If any publishers are reading this (Catbird, I'm looking at you), bring it back into print. But in the meantime, for Capek virgins, check out the Penguin European Classics edition of War With The Newts or read RUR. If you want Capek in bite-sized pieces, read Tales From Two Pockets or Apocryphal Tales. Any of these books will be a great introduction to your new favourite writer!


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