Karel Čapek: War with the Newts #1936Club

I read reviews of this quite some time ago on Book Around the Corner, Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, Biblioklept and, more recently, Lizzy’s Literary Life, and I never had the slightest doubt that this would be my kind of book. It is indeed an unforgettable book. Čapek is best-known as a science-fiction writer, but he was also a prolific journalist, essayist, satirist, anti-fascist, anti-militarist writer. He was not only the George Orwell of Czechoslovakia but also contributed so much to making the Czech language a suitable, respectable vehicle for literature.

The story appears, alongside the narrative, in the format of a motley collection of documents, conference papers, drawings, reports, eyewitness accounts etc. As an anthropologist, I really enjoyed the opportunity for the author to have additional swipes at academic papers, journalese, corporate meeting minutes and so on, but I can see why some readers might find it interrupts the plot flow.

Here is a brief summary of the story: A Czech sea captain with a misleadingly Dutch name (one of the recurring jokes that a landlocked nation has seafaring ambitions) comes across a species of large newts who can walk on two feet and seem intelligent enough to be taught to use tools and weapons. He manages to persuade his fellow countryman, millionaire industrialist Bondy, that these newts are ripe for exploitation, but even he could not have imagined just how much this idea expands. Soon they are being bred for the sake of global capitalism. They are keen to learn, multiply easily, can be traded in their tens of thousands and will do work that no one else wants to do. They can also be used to build additional land mass in the oceans and countries start using them to increase their imperial reach. But it turns out humans have not quite thought through the consequences of their actions, and soon they find themselves outnumbered and overpowered by the newts.

I love the way the story can be interpreted in several different ways: some critics see the newts as a symbol of the rise of Fascism, while others see them more as refugees or victims of ruthless capitalism or the imperialism of powerful nations. The truth is, Čapek spares no one, not even Hollywood blockbusters – and is remarkably astute both about the way the world was heading in 1936 but also about the ambitions of different nations of the world.

The author is excellent at picking out the flaws and foibles of each country. Britain, for instance, as a nation of animal lovers, quickly sets up a Salamander Protection Society, under the patronage of the Duchess of Huddersfield, which encourages women to provide the newts with proper clothes, to satisfy prudish sensibilities, admonishes schoolchildren not to throw stones at newts, but also ensures that newt working camps are surrounded by high fences to ‘protect’ the newts and separate them from the human world. Meanwhile, in the United States, newts are accused of raping young girls, so they are hunted down, lynched and burnt at the stake. Of course, they find ways to legitimise and organise this:

In vain the scientists protested against these actions by the mob, pointing out that because of their anatomical structure a crime like that on the part of the Salamanders was physically impossible; many of the girls swore on oath that they had been molested by the Newts, and therefore for every decent American the matter was perfectly clear. Later on public burning of the Newts was restricted… only allowed on Saturdays and under supervision of the fire brigade.

A German professor meanwhile carries out scientific experiments on the newts and writes down all the results in a very disciplined, neutral fashion. In India, the newts rescue humans trapped on a sinking vessel, only to be accused of forbiddenly touching drowning people of a higher caste. The French and the British meanwhile have a massive spat over territorial waters. Of course, private corporations start complaining that they’ve been pampering their newts too much, that there is no need to feed them so expensively, they should cut down on their expenses in newt maintenance and thereby increase their profits.

The row over which language to teach the newts was particularly illuminating. The original newts from the Pacific islands parrotted whatever language the sailors spoke around them, some pidgin English, some Malay. The ones bred for specific markets are taught a kind of Basic English, while the French insist on them learning the language of Corneille ‘not of course on racial grounds, but because it is part of higher education’. Others insist on Esperanto or some other form of Universal Language, but ‘of course there were disputes as to which of these Universal Languages was the most useful, consistent and universal’. Needless to say, it all descends into a battle of egos and chaos, much like the League of Nations at the time.

I was by turns amused and disturbed by this book. The satire, to my mind, is fierce – so accurate, so funny, even though it tries to attack too many targets at once. At the same time, the book left me quite despondent, because it still sounds remarkably current. We humans have not resolved any of this issues, we still behave like that, and we still don’t seem able to take a good long critical look at ourselves.

Just managed to sneak in another review in this week of the #1936Club, but I have been spending most of the month of April dwelling in that year in literature, and have several more reviews forthcoming, even if they are a bit late for this purpose. I leave you with another cover for the War with the Newts which makes me feel like the designer hadn’t quite read the brief… but I suspect Čapek would have loved it and been very much amused.

#6Degrees April 2021

Time for another random bookish chain, where we all start with the same book but end up on very different journeys, as hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we start with the Booker Prize winning Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, which I have considered reading but fear I might find too depressing. Books about bad parenting get me all flustered.

I mean, the book Back to Delphi by Ioanna Karystiani (transl. Konstantine Matsoukas) was disquieting enough, and the mother in that is not necessarily a bad one, just a tad self-absorbed and trying to hide her suffering from her son… which of course gets misinterpreted. The two of them end up incapable of communicating with each other – and the son goes on to become a rapist and a murderer. He is granted a brief furlough from prison and she takes him to Delphi in an attempt to reconnect with him, and to try and find out where she went wrong.

The next book in the chain is another Ioana, a Romanian one this time: Ioana Parvulescu’s Life Begins on Friday, a time-travelling mystery and love letter to the city of Bucharest, winner of the European Union Prize for Literature in 2013. It has been translated into English by Alastair Ian Blyth for Istros Books, and deserves to be better known.

I used to be more of a fan of time-travelling novels in my youth, not so much now. The last memorable one I read was Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls, about a time-travelling serial killer. It is not an easy book to describe, perfectly bonkers, but as always with Lauren Beukes, utterly compelling.

However, I preferred another of her novels, Moxyland, set in an alternative future Cape Town, where people are increasingly controlled by their mobile phones and apps, leading to a sort of corporate apartheid dictatorship.

I haven’t yet read Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (transl. Stephen Snyder) but it seems to have a similar premise, except here the authoritarian regime seems bent on destroying people’s memories. This was written more than twenty years ago. Perhaps if it had been written more recently the internet and mobile phones might have played a bigger part, as they do in Moxyland.

Of course, the concept of erasing memories or of accepting only one official version of history is something that all dictatorships have in common, and one of the best examples of this is the description of the ‘retouched’ photograph, a frequent occurence in an attempt to get rid of someone who became politically undesirable, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera.

Scotland, Greece, Romania, Chicago, South Africa, Japan and Czechoslovakia – a well-travelled series of links this month. Where will your spontaneous bookishness take you?

#EU27Project Update in May

After four months of #EU27Project, I have to admit I have not been the hardest- working reviewer. I have only linked to six books in total (and two of those are from the same country, France, while the rest are : Germany, Czechia, Ireland and the Netherlands), so in reality only 5 of the 27 countries have been represented in 4 months. At this rate, I have little chance of finishing this project this year – but, unlike some politicians, I never thought it was going to be an easy and quick process, so I’m allowing myself time to continue this project next year.

However, I’m pleased to say that other book bloggers have been far busier than me, so, since my last update in March, we have moved from 16 reviews to 41.

France is the biggest mover, from 0 in the first batch to 6 reviews in the current one. Susan Osborne reviews two very different types of books: Marie Suzan’s poignant Her Father’s Daughter and the lighter French Rhapsody by Antoine Laurain. Kate Jackson reviews a book by Sebastian Japrisot, one of my favourite French crime writers, while Karen from Booker Talk considers a contemporary crime novel Hell’s Gate by Laurent Gaudé. I have also reviewed two French books, the not quite satisfactory Men by Marie Darrieussecq and the dark but very funny and musical Les harmoniques by Marcus Malte.

Austria is also a popular choice for us book bloggers (a trend which I heartily approve!). It already featured in the first batch and has notched up an additional five reviews, although, to be fair, three of those are for short stories or novellas by Arthur Schnitzler by Jonathan: Late Fame, The Spring Sonata and A Confirmed BachelorLike Chekhov, Schnitzler was a doctor as well as a writer, and very much concerned with the human psyche. He describes perfectly the darkness in the Viennese soul at the turn of the 20th century (and not only then). Kate reviews a book set in the same period, Leo Perutz’ The Master of the Day of JudgementSusan reviews one of my favourite recent reads, Robert Seethaler’s The Tobacconist, with a guest appearance from Sigmund Freud.

Reviews from the Netherlands continue to trickle in. Karen attempts The Evenings, but does she like it any more than Lizzy did in the first two months of the project? Meanwhile, Susan found The Boy by Wytske Versteeg deeply unsettling. Ireland also features with two new reviews, a new one for The Glorious Heresieswhich makes it the most popular book so far (3 reviews in total), and Anne Enright’s The Green Road

The last country on the list with two new reviews is Italy, with the crime fiction of Augusto de Angelis and the story of the breakdown of a marriage by Domenico Starnone.

The remaining countries featured in the selection of March and April have been: Norway, represented by Anne Holt – Norway is not in the EU, but we will leave that link there anyway; Denmark with Dorthe Nors’ Mirror Shoulder SignalPoland with Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg, Czech Republic or Czechia with Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Observed Trains. The French might take exception with Marguerite Yourcenar representing Belgium rather than France, but that was Jonathan’s choice and that country is rather under-represented.

After a strong start in the first batch of reviews, Germany only managed one review in this round, a lesser-known Heinrich Böll oeuvre.

So what will the next two months bring? Personally, I intend to read more in this category. Perhaps two or three in May? I am currently reading the road-trip book by Andrzej Stasiuk (Poland), and will move on to poems from Malta and Pessoa’s pseudo-diary The Book of Disquiet (Portugal). But, as we all know, my plans for reading don’t always work out and I get easily side-tracked.

Special thanks and celebrations for Susan Osborne, Kate Jackson, Jonathan from Intermittencies of the Mind and Karen from Booker Talk, who have been the most prolific reviewers over these past two months, but thank you to everyone who has contributed, read, tweeted about this project.

 

#EU27Project: Czech Republic – Closely Observed Trains

I managed to find and order this book just in time and read it on the 31st of March for Caroline’s Literature and War Readalong. However, this was on the plane on the way to Lyon, so I didn’t get to write a review until this week.

Perhaps this should be an entry for Czechoslovakia, which is what the country was at the time when Bohumil Hrabal wrote this in 1965. But he wrote in Czech rather than Slovakian and, when he was born in 1914, his home town of Brno was in Moravia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The dangers of living in Central Europe… your borders may change several times over the course of your life.

After the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia following the Prague Spring in 1968, his books were banned, and you can see why that might be the case. He certainly has a mischievous streak in his story-telling, a combination of broad (almost slapstick) humour and darkness, but in Closely Observed Trains he is talking about the passive resistance of a group of railway workers against the occupation – and, although it takes place in the Second World War and the occupying forces are German, it probably resembled the situation at the time a little too closely.

Miloš Hrma is a rather naive young man, an apprentice at a railway station in Bohemia in 1945. The Germans have lost control over the airspace over the little town, and the trains are anything but running as normal.

The dive-bombers were disrupting communications to such an extent that the morning trains ran at noon, the noon trains in the evening, and the evening trains during the night, so that now and then it might happen that an afternoon train came in punctual to the minute, according to the time-table, but only because it was the morning passenger train running four hours late.

Miloš comes from a family where the men have successfully avoided hard labour for generations: his great-grandfather was only eighteen when he was granted a disability benefit for being wounded as a drummer-boy in the Imperial Army, his grandfather was a hypnotist who thought he could convince the marauding German tanks to turn back, his father had retired on a double-pension at the age of forty-eight and was busy collecting and recycling scraps, so that at home they have ‘fifty chairs, seven tables, nine couches, and shoals of little cabinets and washstands and jugs.’ Miloš himself is proud of his beautiful service uniform, with all the insignia of his status, brass buttons, splendid stars and a winged wheel like a little golden sea-horse.

Still from the film Closely Watched Trains, directed by Jiri Menzel, winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1968.

But he is a troubled boy, who has only just returned to duty after trying to slash his wrists three months previously. The reason for that (or at least the most overt reason for it) becomes gradually apparent: an embarrassing moment of sexual inadequacy with the young conductor Masha. He is desperate to lose his virginity, but not quite sure how to go about it, in equal measure intrigued and repulsed by his randy colleague Dispatcher Hubička’s gross misuse of the station’s official stamps upon the pretty telegraphist’s anatomy. Meanwhile, stationmaster Lánský only seems to care about his pigeons and not being made a fool of during the government inspection. Then, somehow, Miloš gets caught up in plans to sabotage an ammunition convoy passing through.

This image of Hrma from the film perfectly sums up the young man.

I’ll stop telling any more of the story here, because I run the risk of making my review longer than the actual story, which is very slim, around 80 pages. More of a novella really, but packed with content and emotion. Even the brief recount above gives you an idea of the tragicomic blend of gruesome fact and salacious humour, of rapier wit and compassion, even surreal elements, sometimes in the very same sentence. A very tricky balance to achieve, but not a word is wasted. Here is a description of the wounded soldiers returning from the front:

And in this mobile sick-bay at which I was gazing, the strangest thing was the human eyes, the eyes of all those wounded soldiers. As though that agony there at the front, the agony they had inflicted on others and which others now were inflicting on them, had turned them into different people; these Germans were more sympathetic than those who were travelling in the opposite direction. They all peered through the windows into the dull countryside so attentively, with such childlike earnestness, as though they were passing through paradise itself, as though in my little station they saw a jewel-box.

A remarkable, punchy read, with only slightly veiled depths. Even if the intention was not obviously political , this book was published at a time when each sentence could be (and indeed was) interpreted in both literal and metaphorical fashion. It has made me very eager to tackle another of Hrabal’s books Too Loud a Solitude.