Around the World in Words: Czech Republic

When I found War of the Newts on the shelves of a secondhand bookstore, I remembered reading about it in an article from the Los Angeles Review of Books. Back then the story appealed to me, and upon finding the book and discovering the author was from the Czech Republic (a country I had not yet travelled to for my reading challenge), it inevitably became my next destination.

Although War of the Newts marked my Czech leg of the challenge, its author Karel Čapek was not the first Czech writer I have read. My mother and I enjoy the work of Milan Kundera, whose novels include The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Franz Kafka is another favourite. I’ve read a collection of his short stories and novellas, which includes one of his most renowned, Metamorphosis.

In addition to this literature, I grew up listening to Czech composers Gustav Mahler and Antonín Dvořák. But I only came across composer Leoš Janáček last year after reading 1Q84 by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. The latter appears to have a passion for Czech art. One of his novels is even titled Kafka on the Shore, in which the main character names himself Kafka. And it is in Murakami’s magnificent opus 1Q84 that he weaves the work of Janáček into its wistful story.

If these authors are anything to go by, Czech writing and work dubbed as Kafkaesque tend to be at times ethereal, at times surreal, at times both. War of the Newts certainly seems surreal on the surface with its tales of newts that start to think, talk, and act much as humans do. But their evolution is there to lay the groundwork for a novel whose commentary is sharp, shrewd, and relevant to this day.

Maybe our history has likewise been played through already and we are merely moving our chessmen to the same squares for the same defeats as in the past. – Karel Čapek

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