Panenka scarves is one Canadian’s attempt to document his appreciation of the obvious and not-so-obvious experiences of a life in the Czech Republic. For previous Panenkas, click here.
The world’s greatest writer, inventor, painter, physicist, skier, and philosopher of the last 100 years was the great Czech Jára Cimrman. We may dispute the fact, we may even disagree, but there is nothing else that can be done about it.
– Jára Cimrman ležící, spící
The greatest Czech of all time does not exist.
That is not to say there isn’t a Czech worthy of the title. In fact, there have been many great men and women throughout history that could certainly be bestowed that honour. However, ask any Czech and the near-unanimous choice for G.O.A.T status – that’s Greatest Of All Time – is a man named Jára Cimrman. This was reinforced during a 2005 competition in which Czech Television held a vote for the Greatest Czech and Cimrman came out on top during the preliminary round of voting.
There’s only one catch. Jára Cimrman isn’t real. He’s a fictional character.
Of all the cultural oddities I have encountered in the Czech Republic, this one is certainly at the top of the list. But it’s exactly the kind of thing that makes me love this twisted place. The goofiness and splendor of his story is something to behold.
Who was Jára Cimrman?
Cimrman is the most accomplished Czech in history. A genuine Jack of all trades, he is a playwright, a composer, an engineer, an artist, explorer and inventor. Among his many achievements, he is credited with proposing the construction of the Panama Canal, inventing the lightbulb (the legend states that Edison beat him to the patent office by a mere five minutes) and giving notes to Anton Chekhov, convincing the Russian writer that two sisters was “too few”, resulting in the play Three Sisters. Finally, the CD is arguably Cimrman’s most contemporary invention. If this is news to you, perhaps it might help to remember that CD actually stands for Cimrman Disc.
Jára Cimrman advised Gustave Eiffel on the construction of the Eiffel Tower’s base and, if he hadn’t been chased away by hostile natives, he would have become the first man to reach the North Pole. Instead, he missed the mark by a mere twenty feet. When speaking with some locals, I once compared Jára Cimrman to a “Czech Forrest Gump.” I was promptly reminded that Cimrman came first, and therefore Forrest Gump was more of an “American Jára Cimrman.”
What’s amazing is that all of the works and accomplishments of Cimrman were nearly forgotten in time. By happenstance, his life’s-work, hidden away in a small Czech summer cottage, was posthumously discovered in 1969. This fortunate find has allowed Czech historians to piece together the events of Jára Cimrman’s life and catalogue his inventions and contributions to civilization. Cimrman’s treasure trove of plays was so abundant that new works are still being preformed in the Czech Republic.
The Non-Alcoholic Wine Cellar by the Spider
Jára Cimrman was introduced to the Czech Republic, then Czechoslovakia, on December 23, 1966. The legend goes that Zdeněk Svěrák, Jiří Šebánek, along with two Czech radio editors, created Cimrman over a bottle of vodka one evening and debuted him during a satirical radio program Nealkoholická vinárna U Pavouka, or the Non-Alcoholic Wine Cellar by the Spider.
The monthly program gave the illusion of a live radio broadcast from a local wine bar, while the men commented on real news stories. In fact, Svěrák, Šebánek, and friends like Ladislav Smoljak simply filled the airwaves with fictional news tales and silly commentary.
It was on this program that a character named Dr. Evžen Hedvábný – played by Karel Velebný, who could deadpan ridiculous facts so believably it would fool journalists – revealed that he had discovered a trunk with the previously unseen works of a brilliant man. With that, the legend of Jára Cimrman was born. Over time his star grew, to the point that he became a national hero.
A year after his radio reveal, the work of Cimrman debuted on the stage for the first time. Akt, a long-lost play allegedly written by Cimrman, was performed at the Jára Cimrman Theater. The theatre has since moved locations, now residing in the Prague district of Žižkov, but its popularity is unrivaled. Tickets to any performance at the Cimrman Theatre are consistently sold out and, conveniently enough, more works of the playwright are unearthed every couple of years.
The plays are unique in themselves. The first part of the performance sees Cimrman-ologists, academics devoted to the study of Jára Cimrman’s life and accomplishments, come to the stage to present a lecture on something Cimrman has done. The second half is a one-act fictionalized event, oftentimes relating to the previous lecture.
The mythos of the man finally culminated in 2005 during a television competition to select “The Greatest Czech”. During the first round of voting, Cimrman was victorious. Sadly, the producers of the program promptly disqualified the Czech genius on the technicality that he “wasn’t a real person.”
Still, it says something awfully fantastic about a nation that, when given the chance to vote for their greatest countryman of all time, they chose the fictional Jára Cimrman.
It’s no surprise, then, that the enduring legacy of Cimrman’s popularity has a lot to do with the mentality of the Czech people.
Zdeněk Svěrák, who is Cimrman’s co-creator and the face most recognized as Jára’s (owing to the 1983 film Jára Cimrman ležící spící in which he plays the titular character) believes that the popularity of Cimrman’s legend has a lot to do with the Czech psyche. He has stated that “[Cimrman] probably embodies the desire of a small nation to be great. He knew everyone in the world and was on familiar terms with every genius in Europe. He advised them and he advised them well. But he himself never achieved success. And that probably encapsulates a complex that we [Czechs] have.”
Through history, the Czech people have lived next to several European superpowers, yet the small nation often gets lost in the shuffle. After being under the rule of the Hapsburg monarchy and the Austrian Empire for centuries (and having to fight in the First World War in defence of an Empire they didn’t care too strongly about), the Czech and Slovak people finally attained their own Republic in 1918. It didn’t last long though, as it was promptly occupied and annexed the Nazis following the Munich Agreement. After the Second World War, the Communists took control for decades and life in Czechoslovakia was repressed to say the least. For many Czech people humour, often dark humour, was one of the best recourses to forget about the troubles of a history of being conquered, occupied, and oppressed. As Svěrák has said, “People chose humor, because humor saved our nation several times.”
Some of the plays performed at the Cimrman Theatre criticized the Austro-Hungarian rule of Cimrman’s time, but did so in such a way that those bright enough could see that they were thinly-veiled jabs at the Communist system of Czechoslovakia. Criticizing the government in those days was simply unheard of, as it often led to a life of ruin for you and your family. However, the playwrights and performers were careful enough to word their commentary cleverly and avoid severe punishment. And in that sense, Jára Cimrman has been one of the greatest fuck yous in Czech history. I guess it’s easy to see why he’s so popular.
If it hadn’t been for Cimrman, no one would know about us, but on the other hand, without us, no one would know Cimrman. – Zdeněk Svěrák
I hope I have done my due diligence at explaining the idea of Jára Cimrman to any non-Czechs that are curious. It certainly is an odd concept in itself, but one that endears this place to me. The satirical and anti-establishment humour that courses through the veins of a lot of Czechs goes hand-in-hand with the creation, growth, and current popularity of the great Jára Cimrman. He is a man of mystery and a man of many accomplishments and surely his most legendary feats are yet to be discovered.
Back to post 1. Zdeněk Svěrák has since become one of the Czech Republic’s greatest actors and even gained international attention, when Kolya – a film he wrote and starred in – won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film for 1996.
Back to post 2. The competition was eventually won by Charles IV, a Holy Roman Emperor from the 14th century, considered one of the builders of Prague. His name is on nearly everything of note in the city!