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Friday, 18 May 2012

The Absolute at Large, by Karel Capek, Reviewed.

Photography of the Czech author Karel Čapek.
Photography of the Czech author Karel Čapek. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Karel Capek is, of course, the author credited with the invention of the term 'robot', but this story isn't concerned with artificial intelligence in any way. He was a philosopher. The book first appeared in Britain, in translation by Thomas Mark, in 1927. The style and language reflect this period and the version I read had been edited by Damon Knight, the anthology editor, to remove certain chapters he described as 'nearly half the book - (chapters) that go nowhere and contribute nothing to the story.'
This is a story told for a purpose. The theme of man's mistaking religion for respect for God is transparent and boldly exposed throughout. The author was clearly troubled by this artificial confining of a force he considered too complex and ineffable to be so defined. It's an element of my own beliefs on the subject so, naturally, I was in sympathy as soon as this theme became apparent.
The story concerns the activities of a businessman, Bondy, who encapsulates all that is abhorrent in those who consider profit the only worthwhile pursuit, and his one-time friend, Marek, an engineer and inventor who is sensitive to the terrifying device he's created. The Karburator, an imaginary nuclear device capable of destroying matter and converting it to pure energy, is initially seen by Bondy as a way of making vast profits. In spite of Marek's demonstration and warning of its underlying spiritual capacity, Bondy is so taken with the opportunity to make millions that he manufactures these devices in large numbers, causing a crisis in the economic structure that leads to war, famine, death and disaster.
I will give no further description of the plot, but the ending is less inevitable than might be supposed, although Capek's attempt at a warning for mankind is achieved at the expense of what might be considered the natural conclusion to the tale. This author intervention is acceptable, however, in that it allows the central message to be sounded loud and clear. It would take a fairly dense reader not to understand the meaning behind this story.
This is not the version I read, which was from an anthology,
but an image taken from Amazon, where it can be bought.
Can the book be read on the surface level, as a simple tale of greed overcoming judgement? I suppose it can, and probably will be by those without any real knowledge or interest in the philosophical questions posed. I was unable and unwilling to read it at that level and the story was therefore more accessible to me than it might be for the more casual reader. Don't misunderstand me, here. I'm not suggesting any sort of superior understanding on my part, merely trying to point out that the book will be a different experience for those who read it without reference to the deep philosophical issues it raises.
Had I approached this as a simple story, I doubt I would have put up with the long passages of authorial comment. But these are fairly typical of the age in which the book was written, and we tend to forgive them in the classics of that era.
The characters are surprisingly well drawn and even minor roles are played out with conviction so that the reader is able to identify and empathise with certain people in the book. Bondy, in spite of his irredeemable materialism and inability to separate truth from his superficial, but commonly held, belief in a superior power, is nevertheless a real character and not the cypher he might so easily have become in the hands of a lesser author.
There is much humour in the story and a great deal of it is told tongue-in-cheek. I suspect that some of that humour is lost in translation, but enough remains to make the read enjoyable.
I recommend this book to serious readers but think those who prefer simple tales simply told would be best advised to give it a miss.

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