Monday, 23 September 2013

Tales From Two Pockets by Karel Čapek

Here is a quick but predictable disclaimer before we begin – this is another book which guilt has led me to select to read over other more contemporary and “exciting” works, more recently purchased or enthused over. In addition, it wasn’t even the first Čapek book I picked up due to this niggling neglectfulness*. How does this fit with the coincidence-guided intertextual flow of text selection premise, the “cause and effect” effect? you might ask.

Shut up! I might say.

Awesomeness? Czech!
Equally predictably, next comes the contextual bit, where you get to see how well researched these reviews are and I get to feel smug that I actually cribbed it all from one online encyclopaedia or other. Čapek is a Czech writer of immense talent, one of two equally gifted brothers, writing in whatever country the Czech Republic used to be between 1900 and 1938 (Bohemia? Czechoslovakia?). Luckily for him, as a resident of the Nazi-annexed Sudetenland, he died of pneumonia before the naughty Gestapo, who I understand might have considered him a serious public nuisance, found him. His brother Josef wasn’t so lucky**. We, however, are very lucky in that Catbird Press have championed his writing in English and have made available a near complete backlist for your perusal, something I suggest you consider strongly (see postscript).

Within this collection are 48 stories, 47 of which he wrote over the course of one year (1929) with one earlier one chucked in for good measure, published weekly as a newspaper serial; in two parts (pocket one and pocket two one would guess) they explore the crime fiction genre. Explore? I should probably say deconstruct, as the author deftly breaks any and all rules one might come up with to define the writing of the traditional mystery narrative. In part one, the author investigates the various devices of the genre, playing with the accepted role of the detective as moral compass, leaving riddles unsolved and exploring luck and habit as valid detection methods. Characters are often muddy, complex people, but might also be two-dimensional caricatures of themselves, and all are treated to a bleakly humanist satire-wash that later bleeds through the work of authors like Vonnegut, an advocate of the Catbird Press list himself. Some tales are overtly, giggly, humorous, whilst some are funny in a strange, sad, inevitably fatalist manner. All are differently brilliant, without a particularly weak offering amongst them. In some ways it reminded me of Novels in Three Lines by Felix Fénéon, Parisian anarchist and anonymous crime reporter for Le Matin, whose mini crime stories published without by-line were keenly anticipated much lauded, and which were collected posthumously and are often read as prose poetry poetry or micro-fiction.

In other ways, as pre-empted by the introduction***, it felt very much like an artistic study, something the author committed to paper (a bit like Raymond Queneau’s most famous work) in order to prepare himself for a novel-length work. In any case, I loved them all, annoying my wife by interjecting snippets into conversation without any preamble****.

In the second part, a Chaucerian tale-telling session at a local Bohemian pub (probably), a series of prominent doctors, lawyers, policeman, shopkeepers and other, less prominent men of society take turns relating tales of justice and injustice, of crime and punishment. Surreal in parts, filled with faulty logic and often with corners singed by pathos, they provide a further study for the author in his exploration of narrative and context, and lead us, one believes, to the works considered central to this period of his literary life – An Ordinary Life, Hordubal, and Meteor, collected into the Three Novels tome mentioned below.

I trust it was also the introduction to the collection in which I read that Čapek is considered a cubist writer, playfully shifting the perspective of the accepted mystery story. I also seem to recall that this collection is even more astounding given the fact that there was no mystery tradition in Czech writing at the time – no-one was even writing crime novels – but that inspiration could be found in the G.K. Chesterton mysteries that Čapek devoured. Frankly, I should probably not read the introductions to books until after I’ve finished them so as not to blot my copy book before I’ve even begun*****. Nonetheless, I hope I’m a sufficiently aware reader that I would have picked up the wonderfulness of this collection without someone having told me it was wonderful first. And if you choose to read only one collection of mystery stories by a dead Czech writer this year, make it this one. You will not regret it.


* I’d gone for Three Novels also from Catbird Press, but in the introduction, it pointed me to these tales as a fitting starting point for Čapek’s burgeoning philosophical discourse.

** Josef Čapek died a resident of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 1945.

*** If it wasn’t the introduction, then I’ve stolen someone’s opinion without giving them due credit. Apologies if you ever happen to come across this review and fee outraged at this blatant theft, but I’m an inherently lazy person so this footnote will have to do.

**** My favourite way to annoy the missus.

***** cf: The Complete Essays of Michel de Montaigne of which I have only ever read the introduction, and after which it has sat, going slightly fluffy with grey fur, on my bedside table for the best part of five years…


P.S. I trust that while you were waiting for me to finish reading and then reviewing this novel, you did indeed patronise the website of Catbird Press, which deserves lots of browsing and purchasing there from. If not, do so immediately. Thanks.