The story of the genius who never became famous. A Czech hero (and anti-hero), part myth, part reality

Dressed in white, in the middle of a small wooden gazebo in the middle of a forest, an elegant and mustachioed gentleman focuses on a manuscript. Off-screen, a voice asks “what are you working on, Mr. Chekhov?”. “I am writing “The Two Sisters”,” proudly replies the writer. The man, now appearing in full screen, immediately answers back: “Aren’t they too few, Anton Pavlović?”.

Writing about Jára Cimrman, the mysterious talent who among his thousand discoveries also managed to suggest to Chekhov the title of his masterpiece (“The Three Sisters”), is not easy. We approach the character cautiously, on tiptoes, peering secretly at an exclusively Czech phenomenon which becomes elusive, at times incomprehensible, for a foreigner. Both hero and anti-hero, he is a patriotic leader of anti-nationalism, the daft mystery of Central Europe.

The theme: the old Czechoslovakia, before becoming Czechoslovakia, could count on an extraordinary citizen. The greatest man in the small nation possessed the inborn talent of a philosopher, an inventor, an architect, a musician, an explorer, a painter, all coordinated by an indomitable rebellion against the power; namely Habsburg, at least officially (communism, unofficially). His name was Jára Cimrman, and he half-existed.

Most skeptics insist on saying that he was merely an artistic invention, a theatrical character, and will emphasize that there is no news of his life until 1966, that is nearly fifty years after his (supposed) death. Yet for many, the figure is more than an integral part of the tradition of the country, otherwise how else can you explain the clear victory of Cimrman in a famous 2005 TV show, “The Greatest Czech in history?” Greater than Charles IV, greater than Jan Hus? Vox populi, vox dei! It clearly also applies to televoting.

Let’s go in order. In 1966, listeners of the radio program “The Non-Alcoholic Wine Bar chez Spider” first came across Cimrman, a caricature of the average Czechoslovak with a high dose of nonsense (as a non-alcoholic wine shop would require). The authors, Zdeněk Svěrák and Jiří Šebánek, claimed him to be a forgotten genius of the past, who lived between the second half of the nineteenth century and the First World War, the last decades of the empire. Together with playwrights Ladislav Smoljak and Miloň Čepelka, the following year they found a theatre company, whose first play, Akt (Nude), was obviously credited as being by Jára Cimrman.

The first in a long series of works (16), Akt presents a structure reproposed in each subsequent work: one half dedicated to theatre (a painter meets the children he had left “in order not to lose his creative streak”), and the other half to a lecture on the teachings of Cimrman, held by the same actors in the roles of “Cimrmanologists”. Puns, references to traditional attitudes regarding the regime, pure comedy linked to satirical digs, the Cimrman theatre became cult already in the seventies. Over time he led his audience through diverse adventures, from Africa to the North Pole (which the Czechs almost reached before anyone else: they were just 7 meters short, it was told). In 1983, Ladislav Smoljak directed the film, “Jára Cimrman ležící, spící”( Jára Cimrman, lying, sleeping) starring Zdeněk Svěrák as the protagonist, a film which among other things, contains the episode with which we opened this article. The history of the burlesque character is told in episodes, from his childhood in Prague to great near inventions that slipped away, right up to the period when he was tutor to the children of the Emperor Franz Joseph (to whom he taught Bohemian independence songs). The film, a big success in its homeland, has also circulated with English subtitles and for a long time remained one of the few glimpses of Cimrman available for those who do not speak Czech.

His reputation has struggled to catch on across the border, but small and lasting attempts exist since some time. The American Bohemist Craig Cravens organizes and directs Cimrman plays with his Czech language students at the University of Austin, Texas. Professor Cravens, who calls himself a full-fledged American cimrmanologist, flies to Brno every summer to prepare the theatre at the Czech summer school of Masaryk University.

To this day, the Žižkovské Divadlo Járy Cimrmana (since 1992 the theatre has been set up in the Prague district of Žižkov) continues to work at full capacity, even after the sad loss of Ladislav Smoljak in 2010. Recently performances were organized in English, attempting (very efficiently, based on the packed theatre hall) to stem the difficulties of the thousands of puns. Since 2002 it has been possible also to visit a small museum dedicated to Cimrman under the Petřín tower, a stone’s throw from Prague Castle. The plaque of the exhibition states: “Exhibition of Jára Cimrman, the genius that didn’t become famous”.

The story of the character himself is all relative, however, to learn about the phenomenon we need another perspective; the public’s. The setting is a hospoda, a traditional Czech tavern where rivers of beer have always irrigated the nation. We have chosen two guests as an introduction to the subject now known as Cimrmanology. They are in fact a couple, consisting of Blažena, blonde and Moravian, and Enrique, a spaniard from Guadalajara, and student of Czech language and literature. The attack from Enrique gets straight to the point: “Cimrman is the mirror in which you admire everything that makes you feel Czech (to the point that, when I want to measure whether something is purely Czech, I look for it in the works of Cimrman)”, using the right dose of irony, before getting more serious. “It is the product of a nation that to feel alive needs to compare constantly to its neighbours, in comparison with which you feel small and unhappy. Yet it is in this search for its own epic narrative, where it finds its aces: Švejk, beer, nature, its black humour. Everything is normalised, there is not white or black, there are no heroes, not even Cimrman is one”. We therefore imagine a nation in search of glory, who decides as game, to put one of her son on the top of the world, and from there to realise that this whole climb is nothing but a joke. And the Czechs, the small great nation, continue to fill up Žižkovské Divadlo in order to laugh at it. On this note, Blažena can conclude that “Cimrman is the personification of all that could have been and was not (inventor, poet, philosopher) and at the same time the evidence that it could have been worse, so that you just have nothing better to do than take life calmly and go have a beer”. The couple confirm while laughing, that beer is part of the Czech “world view”. Just as it is also part of this preposterous story, the brainchild of Smoljak and Svěrák (now Cimrman is such a cumbersome authority, that it is good to point out who his creators are), a much-loved story and cited by most Czechs. The writer of what you are reading also recalls of a diplomatic evening in Brussels at the Czech representation at the EU, where at the entrance to the building, visitors were greeted by a plaque dedicated to Jára Cimrman, who left traces of himself also at the Expo Universelle in Brussels in 1910 (a footprint, to be precise). “Only the Czechs could dedicate diplomatic venue to a fictional character!” was the comment in fake dismay from a Czech official of the United Nations.

“It is not liked by everyone, like any character linked to political and satirical views”, points out our new guest in the hospoda, Ondřej, a thirty-year-old researcher in Biochemistry at the Academy of Science of Czech Republic. “My relationship has changed over time. As a child it made me laugh and that was all. But growing up, after getting to better know the work and above all Czech history and culture, I realized the depth and elegance with which they managed provoke laughter for generations. It was a form of resistance, a refined mockery of power, and I think that for the people, going to his shows felt like being part of a “little rebellion”. After the Revolution they were able to switch targets, no longer the State, but the personality of the eternal suburbs, the “maloměšťáctvi” of the typical Czech”. There is always an extraordinary story, and people “like to dream”, recalls Ondřej, even if they know that it is nonsense. A bond that remains even in a benevolent man of science, who finally confesses “sometimes I find myself thinking, maybe it really existed”!

by Giuseppe Picheca