My oral graduation exam in highschool* was not looked forward to by my Czech language and literature teacher. All the others (Biology, Chemistry, German language) have expected me to do reasonably well or even excel, but he had some reservations. I already had a 1 for my essay writing, but the oral exam was essentially going to be about history of Czech literature, and I had great dislike towards learning that history.
The reasons for this were multiple. Firstly history was taught as a sequence of dates and names to memorize, and I have always had very, very poor memory for numbers and names, despite having excellent memory in general. It is extremely difficult for me to remember birth dates, even of the closest people I know. Secondly I was never convinced by the argument that learning history is important in order to avoid repeating mistakes, because I saw very early on that the whole of history actualy consists of repeating said mistakes by people who knew about them. And thirdly I did not go on well with that teacher on personal level.
So my knowledge of Czech literary history and theory was very, very sketchy. I have honestly tried my best to memorize all the dull and unpalatable shit that I was supposed to know for the exam, but it just did not hold. About the only thing I had a really detailed knowledge about was Karel Čapek, because I liked his books and I have read everything he wrote that I could get my hands on. The teacher knew this and later on I learned that he actually expressly said that he is apprehensive of my exam because “Čapek is all (Charly) knows”.
I was lucky during my exam. I have drawn a question where the main component was some poetry shit I knew nearly nothing about, and secondary question was something vaguely connected to Karel Čapek. I took my chance when preparing my notes and during talking I managed to drift to Čapeks works just after a few sentences and I stayed there talking in minute detail for the whole 15 minutes the exam took. The teacher, relieved, has let me. The observing teacher (an independent assessor from another school) did not intervene either, for whatever reason. And so I got lucky and passed.
Actually, to say that I liked Čapek is an understatement, I admired him greatly. Čapek is in my opinion unsurpassed in Czech literature. Very progressive for his time, and, above all, a fervent pacifist. In today’s world he would probably be left of Bernie Sanders, but he would not be radical leftist in a real sense of the word “radical” not how it is viewed in Anglophone world today, where anyone arguing that not everything should be privatized is labeled as radical leftie. He might even be accused of centrism by true radicals.
Čapek was very outspoken critic of Nazi Germany and its policies, so much so that his personal safety was threatened by local Nazi sympathisers. Allegedly some friends recommended to him to carry a weapon for self-defense after he received death threats, but his commitment to pacifism was such that all he could manage to do was to carry a small starter pistol and when confronted about it he replied “I know that I won’t hurt anyone this way”. Many of his works center around criticizing authoritarian regimes, social injustices and war horrors, and there is absolutely no uncertainty about where he stood on social issues.
But he did not like Marx and communism. And neither do I. And to this day I think his essay “Why I am not a communist” bears weight. Some parts are of course not well aged after nearly a hundred years (the casual sexism f.e.), some parts can be seen as predictive of the massive social and scientific failure that was Russia under Stalin. If we are to learn from the mistakes of the past, I would everyone recommend to go, read that essay and think about it.
*the closest translation I can get to anglophone equivalents)