I first read Karel Capek probably in 1974. I can recall meeting Odia Ofeimun, walking towards Trenchard Hall, just by the car park in front of the Theatre Arts department at Ibadan and I was walking in the opposite direction. We stopped briefly to talk. It is unlikely that he will recall this encounter. He was recommending Franz Kafka, who I had read but was yet to appreciate. At that time, my preoccupation was never with the story, or the meaning or symbolism of it but, rather with the mastery of language, with lyricism. He was into hermeneutics, if I recall correctly. I was reading Victor Hugo, Andre Gide, Balzac, Jean Genet of Querelle of Brest and Albert Camus. Looking back on it now, I was immersed in French literature.
Odia Ofeimun mentioned Salvatore Quasimodo but most importantly Karel Capek (1890-1938). I bought my copy of Apocryphal Tales at the university bookshop, a new but stained copy. I must have read it all in one sitting. What was astonishing was the fact that Capek re-worked well known stories, emphasising the improbable nature of some of Jesus’ miracles, especially the likely destabilising effects. I had read DH Lawrence’s re-working of the Easter Sunday resurrection story and its implications for Mary Magdalene’s relationship with the Messiah. But, for some reason, the narrative structure did not raise fundamental questions for me as a 12-13 year about storytelling, about established order, or indeed about the undesirable or unpredictable effects of received facts. Lawrence’s account in the The Man Who Died was as apocryphal as Karel Capek’s but for some reason, Capek’s writing took hold of me, shook me by the scruff of the neck and in the aftermath, my understanding of storytelling never recovered. And thankfully too.
The experience of reading Capek was exactly how I responded to my first winter in Europe when I discovered that time itself could arbitrarily be moved forward or backwards for Man’s purposes. Capek was as revolutionary for me as recognising that time was not immutable but merely a convention invented by man. You have to remember that I was born and brought up in the tropics where dawn and dusk were like anchors that barely moved in the great push and pull of the Atlantic waves. There was a kind of unalterable certainty about the fixed rise and fall of the sun and midday was overhead and implacable. But in Northern Europe, to satisfy human cravings or convenience, time could and was manipulated so that the day started earlier or later, and dusk drew in much earlier, that is by 3 pm or much later at 10 pm.
In Capek’s “The Five Loaves” the story is told by ‘an ordinary baker’. And he says
You didn’t hear about that business with the five loaves of bread? I’m surprised at that: all the bakers are absolutely beside themselves over the affair. Well, they say a great multitude followed him to a desert place, and he healed their sick. And when it was evening, his disciples came to him, saying, “This s a desert place, and the time is now past; send the multitude away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves victuals.” But he said unto them, “They need not depart; give them to eat.” And they say unto him, “We have here but five loaves, and two fishes.” He said “Bring them hither to me.” And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass, and took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude. And they did all eat, and were filled: and they took up of the fragments that remained twelve baskets full. And they that had eaten were about five thousand men, beside women and children.
Admit it neighbour, no baker’s going to stand for that; how could he? If it gets to be standard practice for some body or other to feed five thousand people with five loaves and two fishes, then bakers will be put out to pasture, am I right?
The indignation in the narrative voice, the disdain at the possibility that miracles might upset the commercial interest, and the pecuniary interest too:
I can see as a baker, that this is no redemption of the world, but a ready-made disaster for our trade. I’m sorry, but I can’t let him get away with it. It won’t do
That was Capek at his best- he could see in between the crevices of a story. He understood the potential in the human heart for resentment, for envy, for a scepticism that lifted the skirts off the limbs of a story and peeked underneath, at the knickers, at the dark and moist interior, at the hidden and mistrustful odour of whatever it was that counted as prudence or respectability.
In “Martha and Mary” he interrogated the relationship of the sisters to Jesus, examining the injustice in the sister’s relationships: the one sexually attractive and beautiful and the other diligent, dependable, but unattractive. Mary was attentive but not to the Messiah’s meaning, only to the beauty of his talking. She couldn’t recount what she had heard but simply said
I just couldn’t tell you a word He said, but it was so incredibly beautiful, Martha, and I’m so enormously happy.
Capek was subversive in a way that for a 20-year old was exciting and exquisite. Even now in my 60s, I continue to find his humour and wit satisfying, aimed as they are at the pomposity of unreflective and unreflecting belief.
But, the subversive was not only in relation to such stories as ‘Pilate’s evening’ or Pilate’s creed’ or even ‘Lazarus’, it included the masterly ‘Goneril, daughter of Lear’ which took off where Shakespeare left off. Here is an exploration of the nature of evil and in a woman too:
Nurse, you have no idea what it is to hate! It means to be evil, evil, evil through and through. Once you begin to hate – it’s as if you’re altogether changed. I used to be a good girl, really, nurse, and I could have become a good woman; I used to be a daughter, I used to be a sister, now I am evil and nothing more. Now I don’t even love you, nurse, I don’t even love myself – not even myself
Capek is all the time playing with ideas, seeing how far fiction can enter into fiction, distorting and re-fashioning, customizing and naturalising a narrative that is already well known but yet incomplete. Demonstrating the incompleteness, the fissures, if you will and at the same time indicating new possibilities, new potentialities, new chords.
This aspect of fiction points to the possibilities that are immanent in the stories that patients tell in a psychiatric encounter within the clinic space. It teaches how to listen to the ruptures, the caesura in the accounts and then to explore the possibility for alternative endings, alternative plot changes, how to freeze tremors and urgency, how not to merely gloss over but to wrestle a different truth from the accounts that imprison or have the power to kill.
The “Anonymous letter” is neither apocryphal nor based upon an already established narrative, or if it is, the original is unknown to me. Despite standing on its own merit, and not relying on a pre-established structure, a motif that is already working like William Carlos Williams’ “small word machine”, a pattern readied to work on the psyche, it examines a very modern phenomenon- the abusive and threatening letter writer or more correctly the user of social media whose existence and self-esteem depends on how far he can threaten, bully, insult or smear someone or everyone, trolling.
Our narrator, Mr Divis, inadvertently met one of his tormentors:
He was such a puny little runt, with a horribly dirty collar, trousers frayed at the hem, a crooked cord instead of a tie – believe me, a sorry sight. He had an Adam’s apple that twitched up and down his neck, watery eyes, an oily bump on his face, and if that wasn’t enough, he had something wrong with his leg…
Capek never says directly that a sour and bitter soul inhabits a distinctly sour and bitter body but he hints at it. And that is some comfort to Mr Divis. The message is, anonymous and venous letters, lose their terror, their poison if you can imagine the writer as ‘a sorry sight’, someone pathetic and disturbed. Capek is subverting, here, not a visibly powerful protagonist but one that derives his power from anonymity and venom. So, it is power and power structures that Karel Capek takes aim at. The solution, his solution is not necessarily the morally right one, or one guaranteed to achieve success, but what it does is to hand power, (or more accurately to wrest power from the bully) and agency back to the victim, freeing Mr Divis and perhaps all of us who are the subject of oppression, in whatever sense.
Photos by Femi Oyebode