Read Apocryphal Tales by Karel Čapek Free Online
Book Title: Apocryphal Tales|
The author of the book: Karel Čapek
Loaded: 1753 times
Reader ratings: 4.4
Edition: Catbird Press
Date of issue: April 1st 1997
ISBN 13: 9780945774341
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 2.48 MB
City - Country: No data
Read full description of the books:
According to wikipedia, apocrypha are works, usually written works, that are of unknown authorship, or of doubtful authenticity, or spurious, or not considered to be within a particular canon. In other words: lies and fabrications.
But who's ready to swear that things didn't happen exactly as Karel Capek describes them in his delightfully satirical and thought provoking collection of revisionist history? Written between two world wars of unprecedented savagery and irrational hatred, these stories that started as newspaper articles go way beyond the clever and funny literary bagatelle and become a humanist manifesto and a weapon against tyranny and discrimination everywhere. I was saddened, but not surprised, to find out that Karel Capek was number two on the list of enemies of the state when Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938. Anybody who reads his stories, especially today in the third millenium, can see clearly that the more distant the past described in these sketches, the closer the mesasge is to contemporary issues.
I could be lazy and finish my review with the words of praise from Arthur Miller in 1990: "I read Karel Capek for the first time when I was a college student long ago in the Thirties. There was no writer like him...prophetic assurance mixed with surrealistic humour and hard-edged social satire: a unique combination...he is a joy to read." , but I have several pages of notes and bookmarks to share with you in illustration of the qualities underlined by Miller.
First exhibit is the prologue, The Moving Business , where the author acidly proposes that we solve the problems of our modern society by escaping into the past :
Let's say some gentleman comes to me who wants to move somewhere out of this damned century; he's had it up to the eyeballs, he says, right up to the eyeballs with wars, the arms race, bolsheviks, fascism and, for that matter, progress in general. I let him go on cussing, and then I say: Please be so good, sir, as to select some other era; here are some brochures for several different centuries.
A longer quote serves even better to see the despair behind the laughter, a despair that is so poignat I find it hard to believe this particular piece of writing comes from 1936 and not 2016:
Now let's say you tell yourself that this century's not for you. There are people who prefer peace and quiet; there are people who get sick to their stomachs when they read in the paper about what's going on these days, that there is or will be war, that people are being executed somewhere or other, or that somewhere else a few hundred or a few thousand people are killing each other off. That sort of thing can get on your nerves, friend, and some people can't take it. Some people don't like it when every day there's violence breaking out somewhere in the world, and they think: why should I have to stand by and watch it happening? Here I am, a civilized, temperate family man, and I don't want my children growing up in such a strange and disord - ... I could even say, a deranged and dangerous world, right? Well, there are lots of people who think that way, friend, and once you start traveling down that road, you have to admit we can't really be certain about anything these days: not about life or position or finances, no, not even about family. No question about it, there used to be more certainty in this world. Anyway, there are plenty of good, decent people who don't like these times at all, and some of them are downright unhappy if not disgusted at having to live on a street that's so blighted and brutal they don't even poke their noses outside. There's nothing they can do about it; but if this is life, they want out.
Where would you like to go? Which century do you think will offer a better chance at prosperity, healthy and peaceful living? Maybe the 19 century industrial revolution with its child labor and rampant pollution? The Illuminism and its guillotine? Medieval Spain at the times of the Inquisition? England when it was visited by its northern neighbors, the Vikings? Or prehistory among the dinosaurs and the pterodactyls? Take your pick, and stop complaining!
Capek does exactly that, and takes us on a trip through history from the ancient to the contemporary times, focusing on key episodes from mythology, religious or history books. When exactly did we start complaining about 'les neiges d'antan', about the things getting worse every day and about how the kids are paying no respect to their elders? When did we become xenophobIC? Apparently, it goes all the way back to the Stone Age ( Times Aren't What They Used To Be ):
As if anything good ever came from foreigners! Never, never have any dealings with foreign riffraff! No, do as our forefathers's experience teaches us to do: when you see a foreigner, strike first and bash his head in, no fuss and no formalities. That's what we've done since time began: no chitchat, just kill him.
Why exactly was Prometheus punished and by whom? When did we replace democracy and the rule of law with rumour mongering, character assassination and judgement by media campaigns? ( Just Like Old Times )
"Wait just a minute; how can they shout that he's innocent when they don't know for certain what he's accused of?"
"It doesn't matter; everyone's heard something, and they just talk about what we've heard, don't we?
Why did the Achaeians attack the Trojans? Was it for the beautiful face of Helen? ( Thersites )
.. you don't seem to get it. We Hellenes are fighting, first of all, so that old fox Agamemnon can rake in a sackful of loot; in the second place, so that fop Achilles can satisfy his outrageous ambition; in the third place, so that crook Oddysseus can steal our military supplies; and finally, so that a certain bought-off street singer, Homer or whatever the bum's name is, for a few grubby pennies, can heap glory on the greatest of all traitors to the Greek nation.
Look at me laughing, all the way down to the gallows, as I see history repeating itself time and time again. An old philosopher named Agathon holds forth on the meaning of wisdom, and all I can think of is the pitiful theatre of US elections in 2016:
I know, men of Boeotia, that you are occupied at the moment with elections to the city council, and at times such as this here there is no room for wisdom, not even for reason; elections are an opportunity for cleverness.
Agathon continues his expose by explaining to the audience what is the difference between cleverness, reason and wisdom:
In short, cleverness is a gift or talent, reason is a quality of strength, but wisdom is a virtue. Cleverness is usually cruel, malicious, and selfish; it seeks a weakness in its neighbor and exploits it for its own gain; it leads to success. Reason is frequently cruel to man, but it is true to its ends and intents; it seeks to profit everyone; if it finds weakness or ignorance in its neighbor, it attempts to remove it through enlightenment or correction; it leads to improvement. Wisdom cannot be cruel, for it is pure generosity and good will; it does not seek to profit everyone, for it loves man too much to love instead some more distant goal; if it finds weakness and wretchedness in its neighbor, it forgives it and loves it; it leads to harmony.
What drove Alexander the Great to lead his armies all the way to India? It was sheer political necessity. he writes in a letter to his mentor Aristotle, an antique version of the Lebensraum advocated by the Nazis and a theory reiterated in another famous scene, that of Archimedes confronting the Roman soldier over his circles drawn in the sand:
"Rome must be the strongest of all the lands in the world"
"To maintain her position. The stronger we are, the more enemies we have. Tht's why we must be the strongest force."
Political expediency rears its ugly head also when Capek tackles Biblical times, always a thorny issue, and Pilates explains the facts of life to a young idealist:
"Keep in mind, young man, the interests of our homeland take precedence over any law."
Which brings me to the central theme of the whole collection, the monopoly religions claim over truth and the need for apocryphal tales and for men of vision who can transcend the ordinary and petty concerns of the few with an eye for the greater good of many. Pilates Creed deserves to be quoted in full, as the artist's humanist manifesto, the foundation of this shelter against the coming fascist storm that Capek is building here:
You are a strange people and you talk a great deal. You have all sorts of pharisees, prophets, saviors and other sectarians. Each of you makes his own truth and forbids all other truths. As if a carpenter who makes a new chair were to forbid people sitting on any other chair that someone else had made before him. As if the making of a new chair canceled out all the old chairs. It's entirely possible that the new chair is better, more beautiful, and more comfortable than the others, but why in heaven's name shouldn't a tired man be able to sit on whatever wretched, worm-eaten, or rock-hard chair he likes? He's tired and worn, he badly needs a rest, and here you drag him forcibly out of the seat into which he's dropped and make him move over to yours. I don't understand you, Joseph.
"It is not my truth," said Joseph or Arimathea. "There is only one truth for all."
"And which is that?"
"The one in which I believe."
"There you have it," Pilates said slowly. "It is only your truth after all. You people are like children who believe that the whole world ends at their horizon and that nothing lies beyond it. The world is a large place, Joseph, and there is room in it for many things."
The world would have to be immensely vast, spacious, and free for each and every actual truth to fit into it. And I think it is, Joseph. When you climb to the top of a high mountain, you see the things somehow blend together and level out into a single plain. Even truths blend together from a certain height. Of course, man does not and cannot live on a mountaintop; it's enough for him if he sees his home or his field close by, both of them filled with truths and such things. There is his true place and sphere of action. But now and then he can look at a mountain or the sky and say to himself that from there his truths and such things still exist and nothing has been stolen from him; rather, they have blended together with something far more free and unbounded that is no longer his property alone. To hold fast to this wider view while tilling his own small field - that, Joseph, is something almost like devotion.
I believe that each of us has his share of it, both he who says yes and he who says no. If those two joined together and understood each other, the whole truth would be known. Of course, yes and no can't join together, but people always can; there is more truth in people than in words. I have more understanding of people than of their truths, but there is faith even in that, Joseph of Arimathea, and it is necessary to sustain this faith with ardor and exultation. I believe. Absolutely and unquestionably, I believe. But what is truth?
I am often asked if I am an atheist, and I answer like Pilates here that no, I am a believer. I believe in this higher truth that blends together all the other small truths religions are so fond of fighting over, and I believe people are more important than ideas. I am skeptical that any one person or creed holds in his hands the ultimate truth, but I also believe that a fragment of this truth resides in the deep core of every human being. It's called humanism and to my ears it sounds better and more accurate than the word 'atheism'.
After the fiery speech of Pilates, I almost felt like putting the book aside, but the journey is not yet finished. Capek continues with his satirical sketches, taking on artistic expression in a debate between a Byzantine mosaic layer and an iconoclast; rewriting the famous Hamlet monologue to ponder on the responsibility of the artist to be either an entertainer, a poet or a revolutionary; asking us to reconsider the greatest love of all (Romeo and Juliet) as the tantrums of moody teenagers :
"A great love? I think that is when two people are able to get along together throughout the whole of their lives ... devotedly and faithfully ..."
War and intransigence are recurring themes in the collection, from Napoleon to the recent (1930's) rising of chickenhawks nationalists who believe mercy and kindness are destroying the moral fiber of tha nation (sounds familiar?):
"Give?" Master Hynek Rab was amazed. "I wouldn't have done that, father-in-law. Why pamper lazy churls? If they can't earn their living, let 'em drop dead. Let 'em drop dead," he repeated forcefully. "What's needed in times like these, father-in-law, is an iron hand. No charity and no dole! It only makes them soft, and that's a fact!
My edition of the tales contains also a couple of pages of Easter Eggs. Under the heading of Fables the author offers us a series of slogans and short aphorisms from historical figures. Replace said figure with the current politician of your choice. I have selected three of the dictums for illustration:
Attila : We too have come to save the world.
Conquistador : You know, merciful God, that inhumanity is alien to my nature. But of course Aztecs aren't human.
Cato the Elder : What's that? Hunger? Poverty? A poor harvest? No matter - first Carthage must be destroyed.
The final section of the book is called Would-be Tales , contemporary short stories that do not fit with the historical setting of the previous ones, but stories that are nevertheless similar in message and tone.
The Man Who Knew How To Fly  is a visionary tale of genius beind ignored by narrow-minded bureaucracy. It is also an excellent forerunner of the style embraced a couple of generations later by Italo Calvino and Douglas Adams, proof that every age has its champions of irreverent thinking (Aesop, La Fontaine, Montesquieu, Swift, etc)
The Anonymous Letter is another example of the visionary clarity of Capek. The man who invented the word "robot" is describing here to perfection the concept of "internet trolls".
It's monstrous what hatred and viciousness there is in people sometimes.
Ten Centavos is the story of a man who is subjected to a newspaper led witchhunt. It was written in 1938, but it's message applies equally to Nazi death camp, Siberian gulags and McCarthy's black lists. Senor Manuel Varga is another alter ego of the author:
He simply believed in cultural improvement, and he loved people; that was all there was to it. [...] How can a man accommodate himself to the fact that people hate him? Perhaps he, too, must begin to hate, is that it? And how can he accommodate himself to hating when his entire life has been spent teaching people to love one another?
I believe the last quote is a good stopping point for my review. I left a lot of the individual sketches out of my commentary, but I hope what I included is enough to tickle your interest. I know I will try to read more from Karel Capek.
Recommended for fans of Douglas Adams, Sir Terry Pratchett, Italo Calvino and The Monty Pythons.
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Read information about the authorKarel Čapek is one of the the most influential Czech writers of the 20th century. He wrote with intelligence and humour on a wide variety of subjects. His works are known for their interesting and precise descriptions of reality, and Čapek is renowned for his excellent work with the Czech language. His play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) first popularized the word "robot".
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