One of the nicest things about studying for a degree as niche as ‘Russian and Slavonic Studies with Czech and Polish’ is you acquire a lot of very esoteric information, and I’m more than happy to spread this unusual info around. I consider it a responsibility, as well as a privilege, to disseminate some of the weirder stuff I’ve learned in the course of my degree.
(I finally bothered to look up what esoteric means. It’s a bangin’ piece of vocab and, ironically, quite widely applicable.)
To the delight (or chagrin) of my friends, I’ve been known to hold court for hours on such varied subjects as “The Made-Up Animals of Jaroslav Hašek,” “Doctors-turned-authors in Russian Literature,” and “My Struggles with the Letter Ř.”
My peers are dazzled by my description of what different coloured onion domes mean in Eastern Orthodoxy; disgusted by my recounting the shortage of toilet paper in communist Czechoslovakia; disturbed by my passionate run-down of the grisliest deaths of Slavic literary heroes.
I wanted to use this platform to introduce you to a Czech national hero, a man whose impact on Central Europe and, indeed, on the world generally, is literally unbelievable, but who is largely unknown outside of Czechia’s borders.
(I’m not misusing ‘literally’; I genuinely don’t think you’ll believe what he got done in his lifetime.)
I’m talking, of course, about the inimitable Jára Cimrman: the greatest man you’ve never heard of.
Who is Cimrman? It’d take all day to list his accomplishments, but luckily for you, I’ve got fuck all to better to do than clumsily translate his cs.wikipedia page.
Cimrman, like many Czech historical heroes, has dubious claim to Czech nationality by today’s standards; he was born in Vienna at some point between 1853 and 1859 to a Czech tailor and Austrian actress. Cimrman considered himself culturally and nationally Czech, although he lived during a period when Czech national identity was repressed by law – the Czech lands formed part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
It’s somewhat shocking that Cimrman never received meaningful recognition during his own lifetime, given the extent and scope of his various successes. He is now considered one of the eminent playwrights, poets, musicians, teachers, travelers, philosophers, inventors, sportsmen and criminals of his age.
I don’t have the time or the typing skills to provide you with a comprehensive biography of this man, but here’s an abridged list of his greatest achievements.
- proposed the Panama Canal to the US government;
- composed a libretto for an opera (also named the Panama Canal);
- reformed the school system in Galicia;
- constructed the first rigid airship (in cooperation with Count Zeplin);
- investigated the lives of cannibalistic tribes in the Arctic;
- once, when fleeing said tribes, missed the North Pole by a mere seven metres, making him the first human to nearly reach the top of the world;
- created the world’s first puppet show in Paraguay;
- and established the Viennese School of Criminology, Music and Ballet.
And that’s not all! Cimrman is also credited with
- serving as assistant to Pierre and Marie Curie;
- inventing yoghurt;
- corresponding with George Bernard Shaw over a number of years;
- creating the philosophy of Externism;
- advising Mendeleev, the father of the periodic table;
- and developing a primitive version of the internet – since the computer had not been invented yet, he was forced to use a network of telephones.
(I told you you literally wouldn’t believe this man’s achievements.)
It’s said that when Graham Bell invented the telephone, he found three missed calls from J. Cimrman.
No surprise then, that when Česká televize launched a public poll in 2004 to determine the nation’s favourite Czech, Cimrman received by far the most votes.
Yet, in a scandal similar to that surrounding the infamous ‘Boaty McBoatface’ poll, ČT refused to award Cimrman the prize. And why? Because, they claimed, the poll was intended to seriously honour Czech national heroes, and, they added, Cimrman didn’t qualify anyway, for the simple reason that he was made-up.
That’s right, as you might have begun to suspect at some point during that litany of achievement, Jára Cimrman never actually existed. He was invented by a theatre group in the 20th Century, but since then he’s captured the nation’s heart. Real he may not be; but hero he certainly is.