vocab note: šlépěj (m. stopa (po šlápnutí), šlápota; footprint)
The story Šlépěje (“ Footprints” from Povídky z jedné kapsy (Tales from One Pocket), 1929) is connected with another story by Čapek that bears a similar title: Šlépěj (The Footprint). The connection is clear from the reference made to Boží muka (Wayside Crosses, 1917) where the latter story appeared.
Šlépěj, the earlier story, is about a strange footprint. Šlépěje, the story here, is about mysterious footprints. The latter, however, is not a repetition of the former. Šlépěj questions the existence of absolute universal ideologies, religions, and philosophies as well as any other notion for the masses and collective ways of relating to the world. The protagonists are strangers. They meet in front of one isolated footprint in the countryside, exchange their ideas about how the footprint came about, and debate what to do with this puzzling phenomenon. Not being able to solve such a “miracle,” they depart in all directions.
In contrast, Šlépěje, the later story, does not involve strangers, but one single major protagonist: Mr. Rybka. The term of address “Mr….” suggests that he is one of many ordinary citizens without any striking characteristics; any male individual can be addressed with “Mr.” The protagonist’s last name, Rybka, is based on a diminutive form of ryba (fish), i.e. a small fish. The name fits well with Rybka’s desires, actions, and his worldview.
Rybka is a man who loves a comfortable life; he does not wish to be disturbed by unexpected incidents. He likes the view of his snow-covered neighborhood because of its small provincial appearance. When he discovers the mysterious footprints, Rybka immediately calls the police. He does not seek explanations for the curious phenomenon on his own, but expects that a social institution can solve the problem (his attempt fails because the police have a limited scope of responsibility and do not handle violation of the laws of nature). Incidentally, Rybka’s relationship with the police is thought-provoking. He knows which police officer is on duty that night. Such a degree of familiarity remotely suggests even an Orwellian world: once you know your police officer, the police officer probably knows you.
Pursuit for petty happiness within an enclosed noetic ghetto is underscored by other parts of the story. The city has acquired the look of a small provincial town – a setting that is often associated with unwillingness to accept new ideas or ways of thinking. This association is consistent with the property of the footprints; a chain of footprints can be viewed as a symbol of a limited temporal scope, i.e. a time line that lacks the future and the past. The police officer’s solution to completing the chain of footprints (making up, as it were, the past and the future) is welcomed by Rybka; it is not taken as abuse of power.
Rybka’s approaches to life are woven into a narrative that is sympathetic to his narrow provincial view. This technique creates tension between open and closed dimensions, between the laws of nature and the artificial laws of a society, and between quest for knowledge and ignorance. The narrative is written in historical present, i.e. as though the story were unfolding in front of the reader. The dialogues reflect the characters’ emotions and attempts to tame the event with the help of words: to transform a mysterious phenomenon into something less threatening than it is.