Who is the greatest Czech? Some of you may say Charles IV, others Václav Havel. Still different people may consider Masaryk. However, ask a Czech and the answer is likely to be Jára Cimrman.
The Myth behind the Man behind the Myth
“If I don’t praise myself, no one will do it for me.” J. Cimrman
Jára Cimrman, also known as Jára da Cimrman, is an oft-forgotten genius who, for many here, represents the very soul of the Czech nation. He was born to a Czech father Leopold Cimrman and an Austrian mother, Marlen Jelínková in Vienna between 1853 and 1859 (1869 and 1874 according to the English Wikipedia or 1854 and 1872 according to the German). Let’s just say he was born some time in the second half of the nineteenth century in the Austro-Hungarian Empire…probably.
Beyond that, little else is known about his early life or his middle years or even his final days, for that matter. Only one photo exists of him as a child, which is on display at the Museum of Jára Cimrman located beneath Petřín Tower. Cimrman was last seen in Liptákov. The town is also disputed.
One of the certain facts about Cimrman’s life is how thwarted he was as a genius, at least by his own reckoning. Here is a man who brought the world yoghurt, the CD (which stands for Cimrman’s disc), dynamite, and roller skates. He was pipped at the post by Edison when patenting the light bulb and worked with Baron von Zeppelin on designing the zeppelin. In 2010, the National Museum organized an exhibition of Cimrman’s legacy and created a website listing more than 30 of his inventions, such as broom for cleaning corners, trimming scissors with a container, and an aide for suicide.
Cimrman’s genius extended beyond invention. For example, Anton Chekov had intended to call his famous play “Two Sisters” until Cimrman remarked, “Isn’t that too few?” prompting the writer to increase it by one.
Despite Cimrman’s own records, which illustrate his contribution in almost every sphere of modern civilization, the genius of the man remains overlooked.
And Now the Truth…
“From some I have met with ridicule and from others I have mostly also met with ridicule.” J. Cimrman.
If you didn’t already know, you probably guessed the last section was the fictional view of Cimrman. Yes, the figure most Czechs admire is made-up, the brain child of Jiří Šebánek and Zdeněk Svěrák. He was first made reference to on their radio show Nealkoholická vinárna U Pavouka (Non-alcoholic wine cellar U Pavouka) as a means of parodying Czech parochialism and excessive national pride, evident in that his name comes from the German word Zimmermann (carpenter), and he wasn’t actually born in the Czech lands.
Yet, something about the idea struck a chord, and the character and his narrative of grand personal failure spawned a theater company in 1967, which started to produce the Cimrman plays. The plays were written by Svěrák and the late Ladislav Smoljak, who passed away last year. Over its 45-year history, the theater company has put on nearly 12,000 performances in total. That’s about 260 productions a year, all which sell out.
All performances have the same format. The first section is a seminar presented by prominent Cimrmanologists (actors from the theater troupe) who discuss one of Cimrman’s contributions to fields such as pedagogy, criminology, linguistics, or physics. The clip below shows Cimrman’s theories on light and sound, and his proof that light is faster than sound. (In Czech)
The second part is the play, which in some way relates to the first. One striking aspect about the performances is the stage design. Sets are hand-painted, and the costumes often look like an assortment of old clothes the guys found in their grandmothers’ trunks.
Václav Kotek, the man in the blue coat in the clip above, and the theater’s PR person, said that the appearance was intentional. He said, “Cimrman and his time is situated at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. That means that the theatrics and stage design comes from the time when Cimrman would have been doing it.”
Our National Hero
“If Prague will consider my memorial, let it, please, be from white marble, so I will withstand the pigeons the best.” J. Cimrman
Over the four and half decades, Cimrman has become an important part of local culture. Vinyl recordings, tapes, CDs, and DVDs of the plays have constantly been sold. Fans of the plays quote lines to one another.
The firmest proof of Cimrman’ status was when he received the most votes for Czech TV’s Greatest Czech competition, beating people like Havel and Masaryk. Czech TV decided to disqualify him since, you know, he doesn’t exist. However, Cimrman’s supporters were adamant and collected signatures to have him recognized. In the end, he won a second contest for the greatest fictional Czech character.
That the Czechs would admire a man who, in a sense, represents failure, no doubt speak volumes of the Czech nation’s psyche. Many interpret it as an underdog mentality and an ability to identify with disappointment and failure. Not to mention, it shows that they don’t take themselves too seriously.
Kotek gave some further insight into the theater’s longevity and popularity. He said, “The humor isn’t sarcastic. It isn’t satire. The humor is kind and mainly intelligent because a member of the audience is prepared for the joke. However, the joke isn’t presented easily, but they must think it over and because it’s thought over the audience member is a part of the realization of the performance.”
Cimrman for Non Czechs
Theater Director: “Maestro, it is my own play.”
Maestro Karel Infeld Prácheňský: “That’s a big big mistake.“
From Záskok (The Stand-In)
When discussing Cimrman with Czechs, one of the most typical responses is that it is something you have to be Czech to fully understand. Mr. Kotek agreed. Even if a foreigner speaks Czech, he or she won’t have much of a chance to get the humor because a lot of it is reacting to moments in Czech history, and foreigners don’t “have [the history] under their skin”.
But – and I say this at the risk of inviting criticism – there are elements which transcend that nationalism, and providing you speak the language well enough to follow, the plays have a universal appeal.
One example is this famous scene from Dobytí severního polu (Conquest of the North Pole), when a rag tag group of explorers comprised of the expedition leader, a teacher, a pharmacist and dogsbody Varel Frištenský, reach the top of the world.
Expedition leader (Jaroslav Weigel): Let our sokol greeting sound out.
Teacher (Zděnek Svěrák): Friends, I will now draw your attention to one geographical curiosity. I’ve been looking forward to it since Náchod. So, if I stand here now facing the expedition leader and I will go from him in whichever direction. Where would you say I was going?
Frištenský (Ladislav Smoljak): Away from the expedition leader.
Teacher: Frištenský, you won’t participate in our contest. Good, watch. I’m going south, yes. Like this I’m going south. Let’s say this way, I’m going south again.
Pharmacist (Petr Brukner): That’s incredible!
Teacher: You haven’t seen nothing yet. Stand back to back with the leader. And now both take a step forward. Do you see, Vojta? Both are going south.
Pharmacist: That is something.
Teacher: I’ve saved the best for last. Vojta, make a mark on the pole. And now you’ll see something. Now pay attention. I’m going north, casually going north, and now, I’m going south. North and south.
Pharmacist: Wait, wait. That isn’t possible
Teacher: If you don’t believe me, so try it yourself.
Pharmacist: Well then, I’m curious. I am curious. [CROSSES THE NORTH POLE] Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Well, friends, I will tell you, it was worth it. On the verge of death from freezing. On the verge of death from hunger. On the verge of death from exhaustion, but it was worth it.
Frištenský: Maybe I don’t get it, but I would say, that I don’t see anything remarkable here. When I compare it to our trip to Kokořin, yes…?
Pharmacist: Please, it cannot be compared.
Frištenský: How can’t it? Sandstone rocks, refreshment stand. What’s here? Diddly squat.
Pharmacist: Be so kind and be quiet, please. This is an experience of a lifetime.
Professor Andrew Roberts from Northwestern University has gone even further and translated two plays and the excerpts from some others, which have received the approval of Svěrák.
His desire to translate them was a personal enjoyment of the humor and a recognition that an equivalent didn’t exist in English. Also, he thinks there is quite a deal of literary merit along with what he describes as “lapses into vulgarity and boyish humor.”
Some of the humor, he admits, is specific to either the language or the culture. Some of it he sees as having broader appeal. He said, “on the other side, I think a surprising amount works fairly well. Almost all of the seminars that don’t rely on a really detailed knowledge of Czech culture work pretty well.”
As further proof of Cimrman’s wider appeal, on a recent visit to the Museum of Jára Cimrman I noticed a group of German tourists laughing at many of the exhibits. I couldn’t help but ask if they were already familiar with the character.
One of the women in the group said they just happened to come down after visiting Petřín Tower. In her own words, she found the comments on the photos satirical and amusing.
So if Cimrman can make a group of strangers laugh, perhaps there is a chance for him to broaden his audience.
As always, we’d be curious to hear your take on the greatest Czech.