Read Karel Capek’s stories and you’ll find the truth of the whole human race told in an intimate way with black humor to boot. Capek was a Czech intellectual writing between the wars in the unstable years of the 1920s and 30s. He is famous for inventing with his artist brother the word ‘robot.’ It comes from the Czech word ‘roboter’ meaning serf work. His book The Gardener’s Year was my first introduction to his writing. The title sounds plain and boring but it’s nothing of the sort. In the introduction Verlyn Klinkenborg says:
“What sets Capek apart as a garden writer is his willingness to look beyond the inherent estheticism of gardening, beyond the specialization and technicality that overcome what he calls the “serious maniacs” beyond even the solace of growing plants. For him, the only way to understand what gardening means is to understand the complexity of human nature.”
And it is the complexity of human nature, not gardening, that Capek sets out to study. There are 48 tales in Tales from Two Pockets. One of them, “The Blue Chrysanthemum” chronicles the hilarious search by a whole village for the growing place of a rare blue chrysanthemum that the village idiot Klara keeps turning up with. Gardeners can turn into plant-aholics when they must at all costs obtain a plant that no one else possesses.
These tales of mystery are different from the crime-writing traditions of other countries. Sometimes there is no crime, sometimes the answer is already known, but always there is a study of the bizarre things that humans do. In the blue chrysanthemum case there was a sign:
WALKING ON THE TRACKS IS FORBIDDEN
So no one went there to look for blue chrysanthemums.
“What power there is in a warning sign, mister…Only crazy Klara went there, because she was an idiot and didn’t know how to read.”
Capek’s take on human nature was true in 1938 and just as true in 2021. He died along with his country when Nazi Germany came marching in. His death was just as much from grief as it was from bad lungs.