KAREL CAPEK ACHIEVED international fame in 1923 when his play R.U.R. introduced the word robot into the Enghsh language in a blackly satirical vision of a world threatened by its automated workforce. The Capek brothers were already well known in their native Czechoslovakia, but Karel’s disturbing science-fiction fantasy, The War with the Newts, is probably the work for which he is best remembered. Josef, whose enchanting and comical drawings illustrate ths book, dled at Belsen in 1945; Karel dled in 1938, the year in which Nazism put an end to the short-lived Czech independence which had been such a cause of rejoicing for the patriotic Capeks.
Such a politically minded couple might seem udkely collaborators on a study of horticulture, but The Gardener’s Year Book, excellently translated by Geofiey Newsome, is a work of great charm and considerable subtlety which requires no more of the reader than a willingness to agree that it is a pleasant thing to own and cultivate a small patch of ground. Originally published as a series of articles in the 1920s, the book’s lightly worn knowledge derives from the brothers’ creation of a garden of their own for the house which they built together. It was, they thought, important that Czechs should strive to rise above their practical view of gardens as vegetable plots; tribute was paid, although with wry humour, to French roses and Enghsh lawns, in the hope of enlarging the ambitions of their readers. The perfection of an English lawn is unlikely to be achieved in under three hundred years, Karel warns, after a tongue-in-cheek description of how to set about making one, but each year, with patience, it wd grow a little closer to perfection.
In contrast to the darkness of his plays, this little book offers a message of hope to the country whch the brothers loved so much. ‘With everything in the world there is something that you can do, everything can be mended and reformed,’ Karel writes. Even if you only have a window box, it can be made into something beautiful; perceptively, he adds that the best window boxes often thrive in the poorest homes, where shorter holidays guarantee that they will receive more devoted attention. As in the plays, he takes a strong stand against the idea of loveless labour. It was all very fine for Tolstoy to make his own boots, he notes, but he was not trained as a cobbler and his home-made footwear was an atrocious product, as pointless an exercise as the making of a garden without enthusiasm and knowledge. ‘If someone does a job, he should do it either because he enjoys it or because he is good at it, or, lastly, to earn a living.’
Comedy and the Capeks’ wonderfully eccentric powers of observation lighten the seriousness of their strongly held beliefs. Karel’s account of the hose which, with a mind of its own, will twine itself around the gardener like a playful python and direct itself anywhere but at the intended spot deserves inclusion in every anthology of humorous writing; so does his wickedlv funnv passage on the , . gardener’s delight in Latln names dnd how he can be undone by a surrept~tiouse xchange of labels on hi$ boxes of seedlings. A passionate – gardener himself, h: can stk make fun of the obsessive side of his hobby. A distinction must be drawn, he explains, between what the gardener dreams of doing and what he will achieve. Come March, he wants to
Remove the brushwood and uncover the plants, dig, manure, make ditches, hoe, dig over, loosen, rake, level, water, propagate, take cuttings, prune, plant, transplant, tie back, spray.. . .
The list continues, dauntingly. In fact, as he points out in the next paragraph, the ground will freeze over, he will be trapped at the dentist, at a court hearing, or in a round of family visits, and his only comfort will be in learning that ‘patience is the mother of wisdom. After all, there is nothing else you can do.’
Most affecting, and well hsguised in the book’s cheerful Illustrations, is the tragedy of Karel’s personal life. The gardener who appears in Josef’s drawings is always bent over, seemngly because thls is the gardener? habitual position as he weeds-and plants. In fact, the drawings are a homage to Karel’s endurance of a crippling spinal disease which made gardening activities a torture and which caused him to hesitate for ten years before allowing the woman he loved to marry him and so undertake the care of a semi-invahd.