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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Imaginary Genius a Czech Hero

PRAGUE -- He's a hapless genius, a self-taught gynecologist, a mathematician, inventor of the "notorious triple hammer." He seems maddeningly real, but he is imagined, flitting through stories and plays that have made him the people's choice for the greatest Czech of all time.

But, as Jara Cimrman himself might suggest, we must not digress before we start, so let us begin. Created by writers Zdenek Sverak and Jiri Sebanek, the Cimrman myth recounts the adventures of a bumbling and slightly-off-the-mark intellectual. Example: Cimrman invents the lightbulb but doesn't make it to the patent office on time. Or, musing in his journal, he writes: "I'm such a complete atheist that I'm afraid God will punish me."

Discovered "documents" about his life were first mentioned on a radio show in 1966. Since then, Cimrman's exploits and self-deprecating humor have resonated with Czechs. Plays about the character, seldom seen and mainly conjured by imaginary academics who extol his feats, unfold in the Jara Cimrman Theater, where fans wait in line for hours to buy tickets. A movie has been made about him, a pub bears his name, and a museum of Cimrman's inventions sits on a hill overlooking Prague.

In a recent television poll, Cimrman was picked as the greatest Czech of all time, beating out the likes of religious reformer Jan Hus, literary icon Franz Kafka, former President Vaclav Havel and Good King Wenceslas.

"Czechs have a tradition of not taking things too seriously," said novelist Ivan Klima, sitting recently in his sunlit home on the outskirts of Prague. "Why? Maybe it's the philosophy of a nation that was never free. We've been dominated by the Austrians, the Nazis and the Soviets. In 400 years of history, we have been a free society for only 35 years. Cimrman is in this tradition. We've had a lot of famous Czechs in science and the arts, but Cimrman is our response not to" inflate ourselves.

Born sometime between 1857 and 1867, he's ubiquitous in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, popping up when Guglielmo Marconi invents radio, giving composer Johann Strauss advice on music, introducing a young Pablo Picasso to Cubism."

Destiny, however, toys with him. Cimrman missed discovering the North Pole by seven meters. Such failures could turn a man into a pessimist, but Cimrman perseveres amid a swirl of riddles and one-liners spun out in plays and skits: "A warm beer is worse than a cold German woman." "Man is born to his own detriment."

All that's left to keep the Cimrman legacy alive are his manuscripts. According to Czech Radio, Sverak and a circle of actors and writers have produced 14 Cimrman comedies over the years, including the most recent, "Africa." The plays have a similar rhythm: The first act is set amid lectures on Cimrman's discoveries and the second is a tale or skit purportedly written by the great Czech.

Tomas Janik, a waiter in the Cimrman Pub, wondered how Cimrman's distinctive voice, honed for decades mainly by Sverak, now in his late 60s, will survive when he is gone. "They are the best Czech humorists -- no one else can do Cimrman," he said. "When they stop, it won't carry on."

Others believe that Cimrman, whose motto was "It's better to begin eternally than to finish once and for all," will always be there, a comical ghost in the wings, a twist of humor when things get too serious.