Povídka starého kriminálníka
vocab note: kriminálník (m. někdo, kdo spáchal zločin, zločinec; jail bird)

The story comes from the collection Povídky z druhé kapsy (Tales from the Second Pocket, 1929). Čapek, focusing on skaz-narratives that explore everyday criminal stories, stresses the missing border between crime and punishment, between banal and fatal, and between an act against law and “poetry” of such an act. He also deals with the absence of clear motivation for human behavior and with the obscurity of applying universal law to individual lives.

The story opens with a literary topic: relativity of values and judgment, and the amount of prejudice involved: as soon as the writer mentions that his work was influenced by other writers, every critic responds to it as to something obvious. However, when looking for the source of influence, the critics’ opinions diverge.

The story is essentially narrated by an old jail-regular. He introduces an Italian context, which is important for the iconic perception of Italians as religious people who believe in miracles and other catholic symbols. A person claims to have committed a murder, but the victim as well as the circumstances is never discovered. The putative murderer eventually commits suicide, and miracles start happening in his former cell: the cell transforms prisoners’ attitude so that they repent their actions and start telling the truth. It works till the Czech prisoner-narrator is thrown in simply because he did not let the warden win a card game. After his stay in the cell the magic disappears; the Czech prisoner is therefore accused of “destroying the miracle.” This incident brings us back to the opening topic of prejudice as a necessary aspect for any action and understanding: having no preexisting expectations, things do not work and we cannot have an opinion on anything.

From the language point of view, the tale offers a typical spoken discourse with colloquial phrases, clichés, and vocabulary items. Due to the fact that such language components go through much more rapid and radical changes in one or two decades than others, the text sounds rather bookish today. The tale juxtaposes two stylistic extremes: a very high style and a very low style. The former occurs when the narrator puts together a tale and quotes the words of “educated” people; the latter occurs when the narrator expresses his own subjective point of view.