War with the Newts by Karel Capek
And now for a complete change of style! What I love about being an omnivorous and contrary reader is switching from genre to genre – I do get bored reading the same thing all the time! Though I’m not quite sure what drew me to this book at the moment, I’ve had “War with the Newts” sitting on my shelves for a while (alongside a number of other Central European Classics) but I’ve been drawn towards sci-fi recently, and this is sci-fi in the Wellsian sense i.e. dealing with scientific effects of things on earth, which always appeals to me.
Author Karel Capek is well-known for a number of things, as his Wikipedia entry reminds us: Karel Čapek (9 January 1890 – 25 December 1938) was a Czech writer of the early 20th century. He had multiple roles throughout his career such as playwright, dramatist, essayist, publisher, literary reviewer, and art critic. Nonetheless, he is best known for his science fiction, including his novel War with the Newts and the play R.U.R., (Rossum’s Universal Robots) which introduced the word robot. Although primarily known for his work in science fiction, Čapek also wrote several politically charged works dealing with the social turmoil of his time. Having helped create the Czechoslovak PEN Club as a key part of the International PEN Club, he campaigned in favor of free expression and utterly despised the rise of fascism in Europe. Were it not for his untimely death (of natural causes) taking place as Nazi Germany began its takeover of Czechoslovakia, he would likely have been found and executed by the Gestapo. In the aftermath of World War II, his legacy as a literary figure has been well established.
So, we wouldn’t have the word robots without Capek, which is quite something to think about! Anyway, on to the book.
“War with the Newts” opens near Sumatra, where Captain van Toch is searching for pearls with the assistance of local divers. However, there is one particular bay that the natives won’t visit owing to rumours of strange devils. When van Toch finally visits, he discovers giant newts living there who only come out at night and do a particular dance. Befriending the newts, van Toch manages to persuade them to bring him pearls, and so begins the exploitation of another species by man.
It’s not long before the newts have become full-blown slaves, with the setting up of syndicates to transport them around the globe and make use of them. As the pearl market crashes, the newts instead are used as labourers, building dams, underwater work and even moving earth and sand around to make new land for humans. Their treatment is like any other exploited group – kept segregated, cruelly treated and casually dispensed with if no longer required.
However, humans have of course underestimated the intelligence of the newts. Some show signs of learning speech, although this is dismissed as copycatting, and tensions begin to arise between the two species. The greedy humans are in denial about the newts and what they can do, and in the third section of the book regular conflicts break out between the two species. The newts need coastline to live around, and their population is expanding at a phenomenal rate; the humans have been building more land and reducing the coastlines. A clash is inevitable and the newts begin to undermine the whole fabric of the landmasses as the two sides reach a final conflict.
After that the German Press began to take an eager interest in the Baltic Newt. Special stress was laid on the fact that it was just in response to the German milieu that this Newt had developed into a divergent and higher racial type, indisputable superior to all the other Salamanders. With contempt they described the degenerate Mediterranean Newts, stunted both physically and morally, the savage tropical Newts, and altogether the low, barbarian and bestial Salamanders of other nations. From the Giant Salamander to the German Super-Newt, thus ran the winged phrase of the time.
WWTN is very obviously an allegorical work and in fact Capek draws explicit parallels with slavery at points in the book. It’s also extremely satirical, poking fun at all the problems in Europe at the time (Fascism, Nazis, colonialism), the segregation issues in America, the increasing arms race and humanity’s greed and cruelty. There is even some wonderful sarcasm directed at the triviality of Hollywood and celebrity which is still relevant today. Nothing is so self-deluding as a human being – van Toch being one of the worst examples, going on and on about how he loves the newts and is their friend, while exploiting them thoroughly. At least the later slave-masters have no pretensions to caring about the newts.
The book is also very cleverly constructed, mixing chapters of narrative with passages from so-called scientific journals, newspaper cuttings collected by one of the pivotal characters, retrospective essays and a very intriguing metafictional final chapter! It’s also very funny, with some lovely little digs at even the smallest and silliest of human characteristics.
It was a newspaper man’s dog-days when nothing, absolutely nothing happens, when there are no politics, and not even a European crisis; and yet even at this time of the year newspaper readers lying in the coma of boredom on the banks of rivers, or in the rare shade of trees, demoralized by the heat, nature, country peace, and as a whole by the healthy and simple life of the holidays, hope with daily disappointment that at least in the papers there will be something new and refreshing, some murder, war, an earthquake – in short, something; and if there isn’t, they crumple up the papers and peevishly declare that there’s nothing in the papers, just Nothing at all, and the whole they’re not worth reading, and they won’t take them any longer.
But even though the satire is often broad, WWTN brings into sharp focus the ongoing issues we have as human beings on this earth. We’re still fighting amongst ourselves, exploiting other nations, and bringing the world one step closer to catastrophe with our hatred and intolerance of anything different to us. There are still plenty of lessons to be learned from this excellent and intelligent book.