The enchanting but real world of Karel and Josef Capek's "Fairytales"

This week we're going to be looking at a very special area of Czech writing, children's literature. I'm delighted to have with me in the studio Monika Voskova, who is a translator of - amongst other writers - Muriel Spark, J.M.Coetzee, and in children's literature Paul Zindel and Judy Bloom. She also teaches in the English Department of the Charles University's Pedagogical Faculty, where she specializes in children's literature. And the book we'll be discussing specially is "Fairytales" by Karel and Josef Capek, which exists in an English version published by Albatros.

First of all I'd like just to say something about the Capek brothers, who were leading figures in the literary and art worlds in the inter-war period. What did they contribute to the Czech fairytale?

"Karel Capek, the writer, translator, dramatist, was also interested as a critic in children's literature. He commented on children's literature in some of his essays in the 1920s and later he also wrote children's fairytales. His brother, Josef Capek, was a painter primarily, but he also wrote some philosophical texts and he was also an illustrator of children's books."

I've read that in the Capek fairytales there's a sort of demystification of the whole fairytale genre, because Karel Capek introduces so many interesting strands, including realism.

"Yes, you know in fairytales we usually expect some flat characters and backdrop setting, but Capek adds real life and usually his heroes are real children, real people, who certainly are not flat. And, if I can give an example, for instance, in "A Great Cat's Tale" there is a kingdom, where live a king and queen and a little princess, and the little princess is forbidden to play ball on the staircase. But of course, when nobody's looking she does and she hurts her knee and that's the beginning of the story. So the characters behave like contemporary people."

There's a lovely tale - I think it's my favourite - in this collection about an ineffectual highwayman, and there's a lovely sly wit in this story. It's a story about a highwayman who wants his son to be educated as a gentleman, and sends him off to a monastery to have the finest education. Of course this makes him unfit for the job of highwayman. This is also an example of how the translator has adapted the tale by translating even the names, because the highwayman is called McHeath.

"In Czech it's Lotrando. "Lotr" means villain in Czech and the suffix tells us that he's really a great big villain, but it's probably untranslatable."

I'm just going to read a short piece, which is one attempt of the highwayman, who's been called home, because his father has died and he's inherited the family business, as it were. And he's already failed miserably with one attempt at highway robbery, so he sets out again.

His henchman, Ned gave him a terrible telling off and told him next day he had better rob and murder the very first person he should meet. Well, the next day McHeath lay in wait with his thin little rapier on the road near Stourbridge. Quite soon a carrier drove by with a great load of goods.

Young McHeath barred his way and called out: "I regret to tell you sir, that I have to run you through. Please make yourself ready at once and say a last prayer."

The carrier fell to his knees and prayed while he contemplated how to get out of this predicament. He said a first and then a second Paternoster and still no bright idea had occurred to him. Already he was on his tenth and then twentieth prayer, and still nothing.

"Get on with it, sir," called the young McHeath, adopting a menacing stance, "Are you ready to die?"

"Oh no, not at all," said the carrier, his teeth chattering, "For I am a great sinner. For thirty years I have not been near a church, I've sworn like a heathen, I've blasphemed and played cards and I've sinned at every step. But if you'd allow me to slip into the town to make my confession, perhaps the good Lord will forgive me and not throw my soul into Hell. Do you know what? I'll go off quickly and after I have confessed, I'll come back and you can run me through."

"All right," said McHeath, "I'll wait here near your cart."

"Good," the carrier agreed, "And would you please lend me your horse so that I'm quicker getting back?" The good-hearted highwayman agreed even to this.

So, this is him in action. And it has a lovely twist at the end.

"Yes, in fact the highwayman despairs so much at not being able to carry on with his father's job, that he goes to the monastery where he was educated to ask for advice, and the good old monk tells him after some contemplation to become a toll collector. And he even arranges a job for him. So he starts doing it and after some years the monk decides to go and see him, and he is very much surprised that the young man really became a very nasty toll collector, very grumpy and sort of "highwaymanish"! So that is the irony of the story"

He's now able officially to carry out daylight robbery by being a toll-collector. I think it's amusing for adults to read too. I really enjoyed these stories very much.

"Certainly. The language is great and even the translation still has a charm for adults, but at the same time we cannot say that Karel Capek does what some other writers of children's literature do, that they speak above the heads of children. That's never the case, and perhaps I could compare Karel Capek a little bit to Roald Dahl, who did a lot to move the writing of children's literature ahead. Certainly Karel Capek didn't subvert the children's story, but he brought realism and a lot of humour to it."

I'll read the ending to the highwayman's story now:

A good many years later the Hereford Abbot was riding in a trap to Tewkesbury to visit a priest there. He was already looking forward to meeting the polite McHeath at the toll-bar and asking him how he was getting on. And indeed, at the toll-bar a bearded fellow approached him in his trap. It was McHeath himself, muttering some words, he held out his hand.

The Abbot reached into his pocket but because he was fat, he had to ease up his body with one hand so that he could dip the other into his pocket. So it took a little while before he pulled his money out. Upon which McHeath addressed him in a surly voice: "Get a move on, can't you. How long is a fellow to wait for those blasted two pennies?"

The Abbot fumbled in his purse and said: "But I don't have any change. Can you change a shilling for me, dear man?"

"Devil take you!" shouted McHeath, "If you haven't any pennies what the heck are you doing here? Either you give me the two pennies, or you can be off back where you came from!"

"McHeath, McHeath," the Abbot said sadly, "Don't you recognize me?" Whatever has happened to your good manners?" McHeath was taken aback for he had not recognized the Abbot till then. He muttered something very nasty, but then he pulled himself together and said: "Don't be surprised I've lost my good manners, sir. Did you ever see a toll-bar keeper, a ticket inspector, a tax collector or a bum-bailiff who would not be a gruff sort of chap?"

"That's true," said the Abbot, "No, I never did." "So you see," grumbled McHeath, "And now be off to the Devil with you."

And that is the end of the story about the polite highwayman. He is probably dead by now but you will meet his progeny in many places. You'll know them by their great readiness to tell you off for no reason at all. And that should not be.

They are very funny stories. I also liked the story about the water sprite in here. There are lovely little details, like the horse-power - the whole concept of horse-power, where the water sprites use actual horses - lovely touches, very creative language. In fact I'd like to read this part because I think it's a lovely opening to the Water-Sprite's Tale, in this edition of "Fairytales" by Karel and Josef Capek, published by Albatros in a translation by Lucy Dolezalova:

There was one water sprite near granddad's mill in Pershore and he kept sixteen horses under the weir. That's why the engineers used to say that the flow of the water in the river Avon at that spot had sixteen horse power. Those sixteen white horses were all the time pulling and pulling and so the mill wheel kept on turning. Then, the night when granddad died, the water sprite went and quietly unharnessed all sixteen horses and for three days, the mill wheel did not turn. In larger rivers there were water sprites having even more horses, perhaps fifty or a hundred, but some sprites are so poor, they don't even have a wooden saw horse.

Of course, a tycoon sprite in London, like the one on the Thames, is an imposingly wealthy and important personage. He could easily run a motor boat and go down to the sea for the summer. Indeed, in London you'll find crafty shark sprites having money to spare and they rush around in cars, toot, toot, flinging mud in all directions. Then again, there are insignificant sprites living in a puddle no bigger than the palm of your hand where there is but one frog, three gnats and a couple of diving beetles. Or their domain is in a niggling little ditch that would not even wet the belly of a mouse crossing it. There are those who, in a whole year, never catch more than a couple of paper boats and a baby's nappy, lost by Mummy when she was swilling it. Yes, it's a poor look out for them. On the other hand, a Windemere water sprite could own easily twenty thousand and two hundred carp as well as tench and eels and a toothy pike or two. Don't look for equality.

I'm interested to know how the Czech fairytale is holding up in the era of Harry Potter. It seems to me that it's doing pretty well.

"I would say so. I think first that parents are still inclined to buy fairytales for their children. There is a strong tradition. There are anthologies of old traditional tales by Bozena Nemcova, but there are also new, rewritten fairytales or completely new fairytales by good authors, by famous poets, like Pavel Srut. There are even films made after fairytales. I could mention for instance Fimfarum by Jan Werich, who was a great dramatist and the stories are great, or a little horror-like film made after Kytice (Bouquet) by Karel Jaromir Erben, the 19th century writer."

So in general do you see a development in children's literature more towards fantasy?

"Certainly. I think so, at the moment, but the realism is still there, and I would say that the Czech speciality is the humour. And we certainly do not like tragic endings or nostalgia in fairytales."