The great Czechoslovak writer Karel Capek died in Prague in 1938, three months shy of springtime and the Nazi occupation. In March 1939, Hitler was spending nights at Kafka’s castle, which overlooked the fresh grave of a genius no less intense. Capek’s work must have read like prophecy. Its creator was better off dead. The Absolute at Large goes beyond the religious fervor of Nazism, foreshadowing the collectivization of Communism and the emergence of a free market too wild for any known West.
Capek presents Engineer Marek, inventor of the Karburator, a generator that makes Chernobyl seem like a AA battery. In contravention of Lavoisier’s laws of conservation, the Karburator destroys matter completely, in the process producing great power. According to Marek, this power is the matter’s very “soul,” released into air as the Absolute, the pantheistic God. Inspired, people stop sinning. Church and state go into business together, and hilarity ensues.
Capek was one of the great eclectics, and his art was most at home among the seemingly foreign. He wrote about aliens and robots, about religion as industrial pollutant; his politics inveighed against the Communist threat long before Prague even knew it existed. Now the University of Nebraska Press has published this most timely novel in an edition that doesn’t see fit to name its translator. An invisible, ineffable presence—maybe, after all, God speaks Czech.