Monday, 17 January 2011
The Greatest Czech
In 2005, following the success of the BBC's 100 Greatest Britons, Czech Television launched a competition to find the greatest Czech. Who won? Not Vaclav Havel, Charles IV, Jan Hus, Jan Zizka, or the country's first president Tomas Mararyk. No, the greatest Czech as voted for by the Czech public was Jara Cimrman.
Never heard of him? He's very well known in the Czech Republic. I was recently reminded of that by the large number of posters on the Prague underground for a Jara Cimrman book. He has his own museum in Prague.
Cimrman was born in Vienna in either 1857, 1864, 1867 or 1894 - the exact date is uncertain, since the doctor recording the birth was drunk. He grew up to be a hugely influential inventor - his inventions include the CD (Cimrman's disc) and yoghurt. Unfortunately he was always a few minutes late at the Patent Office, so someone else got the credit. He was also influential in the theatre, he advised Chekhov that Two Sisters were too few and also corresponded with George Bernard Shaw (who never replied). For a fuller list of his achievements check out his Wikipedia entry.
And yet despite this, Czech TV refused to accept the public's decision.Why not? Well there was the minor problem that he did not exist, has never done so in fact, apart from as a fictional comic creation. The wonderful Czech public had refused to play ball.
But in many ways Cimrman would have been so right for the title. He works not just as a comic character but as a summary of Czechness. The Czechs know that they would have invented everything if they hadn't been distracted, that they would have been great explorers if they had chosen to (Cimrman nearly was the first man to the North Pole - he missed it by seven metres), and that they have wrongly have been overlooked. The trouble is they can't quite take things seriously - things like tv competitions for example.