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Three Novels: Hordubal, Meteor, an Ordinary Life

Three Novels: Hordubal, Meteor, an Ordinary Life

by Karel Capek

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This trilogy of novels was the culmination of Karel Capek's career. The novels share neither characters nor events; instead, they approach the problem of knowing people—of mutual understanding—in a variety of ways. Detectives faced with a murder reconstruct the crime, but not the character of the man who was murdered. Three people tell stories about a


This trilogy of novels was the culmination of Karel Capek's career. The novels share neither characters nor events; instead, they approach the problem of knowing people—of mutual understanding—in a variety of ways. Detectives faced with a murder reconstruct the crime, but not the character of the man who was murdered. Three people tell stories about a dying pilot they know almost nothing about; each story is as full of truth as it is devoid of facts. And one man looks back on his life and discovers all the people he might have been. Together, these three short novels form a readable philosophical novel unique in world literature.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Enjoyable philosophical novels can be counted on a hand or two. ... Now, American readers can add to this skimpy list this obscure but thoroughly deserving trilogy.”  —Washington Post Book World

“Capek's masterpiece.”  —Chicago Tribune

Product Details

Catbird Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.85(d)

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Copyright © 1990 William Harkins
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0945774087

Chapter One


That man sitting second from the window, the one with his clothes all creased; who'd think that he's an American? Don't tell me! Surely Americans don't travel in slow trains; they go with the express, and even then it's not fast enough for them, the trains are quicker in America they say, with much bigger carriages, and a white-coated waiter brings you iced water and ice-creams, don't you know? Hello, boy, he shouts, fetch me some beer, bring a glass for everyone in the carriage, even if it costs five dollars, damn it! Good Lord! That's life in America, you know: it's no use trying to tell you.

The second one from the window dozed with his mouth open, all sweaty and tired, and his head hung down as if he were lifeless. Oh, God, oh, God, it's already eleven, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen days; for fifteen days and nights sitting on my box, sleeping on the floor, or on a bench, sticky with sweat, stupefied, and deafened with the rattle of the machines; this is the fifteenth day; if only I could stretch my legs, put a bundle of hay under my head and sleep, sleep, sleep ...

The fat Jewess by the window squeezed herself gingerly into the corner. That's it, at the end he'll go off, and fall on me like a sack; who knowswhat's wrong with him-looks as if he's rolled on the ground in his clothes, or something; you seem a bit queer to me, I should say, I should like to move right away; oh, God, if only the train would stop! And the man, second from the window, nodded, bent forward, and woke with a jerk.

"It's so hot," said the little old man, looking like a hawker, cautiously beginning a conversation. "Where are you going to?"

"To Kriva," the man got out with an effort.

"To Kriva," repeated the hawker professionally and graciously. "And have you come far, a long way?"

The man second from the window made no reply, he only wiped his moist forehead with his grimy fist, and felt faint with weakness and giddiness. The hawker gave an offended snort and turned back towards the window. The other hadn't the heart to look through the window, he fixed his eyes on the filth on the floor, and sat waiting for them to ask him again. And then he would tell them. A long way. All the way from America, sir. What do you say, all the way from America? And so you are coming all this distance for a visit? No, I'm going home. To Kriva, I have a wife there, and a little girl; she's called Hafia. She was three years old when I went away. So that's it, from America! And how long were you there? Eight years. It's eight years now. And all the time I had a job in one place: as a miner. In Johnstown. I had a mate there; Michal Bobok was his name. Michal Bobok from Talamas. It killed him; that was five years ago. Since then I've had no one to talk to-I ask you, how was I to make myself understood? Oh, Bobok, he learned the lingo; but you know, when a chap has a wife, he thinks how he'll tell her one thing after another, and you can't do that in a strange tongue. She's called Polana.

And how could you do your job there when you couldn't make yourself understood? Well, like this: they just said, Hello, Hordubal, and they showed me my job. I earned as much as seven dollars a day, sir, seven. But living's dear in America, sir. You can't live even on two dollars a day-five dollars a week for bed. And then the gentleman opposite says: But then, Mr. Hordubal, you must have saved a nice tidy bit! Oh, yes, you could save. But I sent it home to my wife-did I tell you that she's called Polana? Every month, sir, fifty, sixty, and sometimes ninety dollars. I could do that while Bobok was alive, because he knew how to write. A clever man, that Bobok was, but he got killed five years ago; some wooden beams fell on him. Then I couldn't send any more money home, and I put it in a bank. Over three thousand dollars, I tell you, sir, and they stole it from me. But that's impossible, Mr. Hordubal! What did you say? Yes, sir, over three thousand dollars. And you didn't prosecute them? Now I ask you, how could I prosecute them? Our foreman took me to some kind of a lawyer; he patted my shoulder. O.K., O.K., but you must pay in advance; and the foreman told him he was a swine, and pushed me down the stairs again. It's like that in America, no use talking. Jesus Christ, Mr. Hordubal, three thousand dollars! That's a big sum of money, it's a whole fortune, God in Heaven, what bad luck! Three thousand dollars, how much is that in our money?

Juraj Hordubal felt a deep satisfaction: You'd all turn and look at me, all you people here, if I began to tell you; people would rush from all over the train to look at a man who had three thousand dollars stolen in America. Yessir, that's me. Juraj Hordubal raised his eyes, and looked round at the people; the fat Jewess pressed herself into the corner, the hawker seemed to be offended, and looked out of the window, working his jaws, and an old woman, with a basket on her lap, eyed Hordubal as if she disagreed with something.

Juraj Hordubal closed up again. All right then, it's all the same, I needn't worry about you; for five years I've not spoken to a soul, and I managed that. And so, Mr. Hordubal, you're coming back from America without a cent? Oh, no, I had a good job, but I didn't put my money in the bank again, you bet! In a box, sir, and the key under my shirt, that's how it was. Seven hundred dollars I'm taking home. Well, sir, I would have stayed there, but I lost my job. After eight years, sir. Locked out, sir. Too much coal, or something. From our pit six hundred were given leave, sir. And everywhere and everywhere there was nothing but people being sent away. No job for a man anywhere. That's why I'm coming back. Going home, you know. To Kriva. I have a wife there and some land. And Hafia, she was three then. I have seven hundred dollars under my shirt, and once more I shall begin to farm, or I shall work in a factory. Or fell trees.

And then, Mr. Hordubal, weren't you lonely without your wife and child? Lonely? My God! But I ask you, I sent them money, and I kept thinking, this will buy a cow, this an acre of land, this something for Polana, but she'll know herself what to buy. Every dollar was for something, And the money in the bank, that was enough for a herd of cows. Yess'r, and they pinched it from me. And did she ever write to you, your wife? She didn't. She can't write. And did you write to her? No, sir, can't write, sir. Ever since that Michal Bobok died I haven't sent her anything. I only put the money by. But at least you telegraphed to her that you were coming? What for, why, why waste money on that? It would give her a turn if she got a telegram, but she won't get it from he. Ha, ha, what do you think! Perhaps she thinks your dead, Mr. Hordubal; don't you think if she hasn't heard a word from you for so many years--? Dead? A chap like me, dead! Juraj Hordubal blanced at his knotted fists. A fellow like that, what an idea! Polana is sensible, she knows that I'm coming back. After all, we're all mortal; what if Polana is no longer alive? Shut up, sir; she was twenty-three when I went and strong, sir, as strong as a horse-you don't know Polana; with that money, with those dollars I kept sending her, with those she wouldn't be alive? No, thank you.

The hawker by the window scowled and mopped her brow with a blue handkerchief. Perhaps he'll say again: It's so hot. Hot, sir! You call this hot? You ought to be on the lower deck sir; or below in the shaft for anthracite. They put niggers down there, but I stood it, yess'r. For seven dollars. Hello, Hordubal! Hello, you niggahs! Yes, sir, a man can stand a lot. Not horses. They couldn't send any more horses down below to haul the trucks. Too hot, sir. Or the lower deck on the boat.... A fellow can stand a lot if only he can make himself understood. They want something from you, you don't know what; and they shout, get into a temper, shrug their shoulders. Now I ask you, how could I find out in Hamburg how to get to Kriva? They can shout, but I can't. To go to America's nothing; someone puts you on the boat, someone waits for you there-but back, sir nobody will help you. No, sir. It's a hard job to get home, sir.

And Juraj Hordubal nodded his head, then it nodded by itself, heavily and listlessly, and Juraj fell asleep. The fat Jewess by the window turned up her nose; the old woman with the basket on her lap and the offended hawker glanced at each other knowingly: Oh, oh, that's what people are like now: like cattle-

Chapter Two

Who's that there, who's that on the other side of the valley? Look at him; a gentleman, wearing shoes, perhaps he's an engineer, or something like that, he's carrying a black box, and trudges up the hill-if he weren't so far away, I'd put my hands to my mouth and halloo to him: Praised be to Jesus Christ, sir what's the time? Two minutes past twelve, my friend: if you weren't so far away I'd shout and ask whose cows you're minding, and then perhaps you'd point and say: That with the white patch on her face, that red and white, that one with the star, that roan, and this heifer belong to Polana Hordubal. Well, well, my lad, they're nice cows, a pleasure to look at; only don't let them get down to Black Brook, the grass is sour there, and the water's foul. Just think of that, to Polana Hordubal; and before she'd only got two cows; and what about it, boy, hasn't she got some oxen as well? Good Lord, and what sort of oxen, from Podoli, with horns spreading out like arms; two oxen, sir. And any sheep? Both rams and ewes, sir, but they are grazing up on Duma Polonina. Polana is rich and clever. And has she got a husband? Why do you wave your arms about like that? Polana has no husband? Oh, what a stupid fool; he doesn't recognize me, the man; he shades his eyes with his hand, and stands staring, stating as if he were a gate-post.

Juraj Hordubal felt his heart thumping right up in his throat; he had to stop, and catch his breath, ahah! ahah! It's too much, it's so sudden, it makes him shake like a man who has fallen into water: all of a sudden he's at home, he only stepped over that stony gully, and it overwhelmed him on all sides: yes, that gully was always there, that blackthorn bush was there, too, and even then it was scorched by the herdsman's fire; and again mullein flowers in the ravine, the road vanishes in the dry grass, and in the dry thyme, here is that boulder grown over with bilberries, gentian, junipers, and the border of the wood, dry cow droppings, and the forsaken hay-hut; there is no America any more, eight years have vanished; everything is as it was, a shiny beetle on the head of a thistle, smooth grass, and far away the sound of cow-bells, the pass behind Kriva, the brown clumps of sedges, and the way home, a road trodden by the soft steps of mountain men, who wear home-made shoes and have never been to America, a road smelling of cows and of the forest, warm like an oven, leading into the valley, a stony road, trampled down by farm animals, swampy near the springs, bumpy with stones; oh, Lord, what a fine footpath, as swift as a brook, soft with grass, crumbling with stone chips, squelching in the hollows, curving under the trees in the wood: no, sir, no clinker sidewalk that squeaks under your boot, like they have in Johnstown, no railings, no hosts of men tramping to the mine, not a soul anywhere, not a soul, only a road leading down, the stream, and the sound of the cow-bells, the way home, dropping downwards, the little bells of the calves, and beside the stream the blue wolf's bane-

Juraj Hordubal descended with long strides: What difference does a box make, what difference do eight years; this is the way home, it just takes you along, like the herd returning at dusk, with full udders, ting-tang from the cows, and the little bells of the calves: why not sit down here and wait till dusk, come into the village when the cow-bells are ringing, when the old grannies come out on to their doorsteps, and men lean on the fence: look, look, who's coming here e Why me-like a herd from the pasture -right into the open gate. Good evening, Polana, even I am not returning empty.

Or no, wait till dark, until God's cattle have gone, until everything has fallen asleep; then knock on the window, Polana! Polana! God in Heaven, who's there? It's me, Polana, so that you are the first to see me; glory to God! And where's Hafia? Hafia's asleep; am I to wake here No, let her sleep. God be praised.


Excerpted from THREE NOVELS by KAREL CAPEK Copyright © 1990 by William Harkins
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

What People are Saying About This

Arthur Miller
It is time to read Capek again for his insouciant laughter, and the anguish of human blindness that lies beneath it...He is a joy to read -- a wonderfully surprising teller of sincerely astonishing and unforgettable tales.
Rene Wellek
One of the most successful attempts at a philosophical novel in any language.

Meet the Author

Karel Capek (1890–1938) is generally considered the greatest Czech author of the first half of this century. He was Czechoslovakia's leading novelist, playwright, story writer, and columnist, and the spirit of its short-lived democracy. His plays appeared on Broadway soon after their debut in Prague, and his books were translated into many languages.

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