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.

Topple over, you charming little TBR pile…

Well, yes, thank you very much for asking, my TBR pile is nice and healthy. Growing taller by the day. It’s such a charming creature, in fact, that I cannot help giving it some delicious tidbits although I know it should go on a diet.

So this is what I’ve been feeding the greedy little creature lately:

Geneva-related chocolates

I bought one of Kathleen Jamie‘s older collection of poems The Tree House in preparation for the masterclass in Geneva. Then I made the fatal mistake (or maybe it was deliberate?) of arranging to meet my friend at the well-stocked Payot bookshop at the railway station and indulged in two Swiss Romande women writers I have heard of, but never read: Alice Rivaz – a contemporary of Simone de Beauvoir and equally feminist, with a collection of short stories entitled Sans alcool (Without alcohol); Pascale Kramer’s L’implacable brutalité du réveil (The Relentless Brutality of Awakening) – prize-winning contemporary author with a novel about an expat spouse trying to make sense of motherhood and living abroad in California. Last but not least, I also have a copy of Offshoots 14, the literary journal published every two years by Geneva Writers Group. This edition was edited by Patti Marxsen and I am delighted to have a poem included in it.

Blogger Delights

From the Pandora’s box that is reading other people’s book blogs, I garnered an old copy of Letters from England by Karel Čapek, one of the foremost Czech writers.  Emma from Book Around recommended it as a delightful light read and how right she was! Although it is set in the 1920s, it describes many of the things which puzzles us foreigners about the UK (he also visited Scotland, Wales and Ireland, not just England) even now – and all done with great charm and affection (plus his own illustrations). Kaggsy and Simon Thomas also read this and really enjoyed it.

I can’t remember who mentioned Jonas Lüscher – it could have been Shigekuni, who is my source of wisdom in all things German language, or someone linking up to German Literature Month. Lüscher is a Swiss German writer who won the Swiss Book Prize this year for his second novel Kraft. However, I decided to get his first novel Frühling der Barbaren (Barbarian Spring), about privileged English bankers and a Swiss trust fund man finding themselves in the middle of a financial crisis in the Tunisian desert.

Last but not least, I am a great Shirley Jackson fan and a kind soul on Twitter told me that the excellent recent biography Shirley Jackson. A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin is now out in paperback, so it seemed like the perfect Christmas present for myself.

I Spy With My Little Eye…

I came across these books on the shelves of libraries.

The first one was at Ty Newydd by Welsh author Stuart Evans: The Caves of Alienation. I started reading it there and found it so enticing that I had to buy my own copy (not at all easy to find, incidentally). It’s about a well-known writer, the forces that shaped him, his controversial life and why he comes to a sticky end on an isolated Welsh island. It is very funny and clever, told from a variety of viewpoints (friends, lovers, teachers, documentaries, critics, biographers etc.).

Finally, I saw this children’s book at my local library and just couldn’t resist as a cat-lover. His Royal Whiskers by Sam Gayton is about the heir of the Petrossian Empire, Prince Alexander, who miraculously gets transformed into a fluffy-wuffy kitten… I don’t know if my children will read this – they might be too old for it – but I certainly will! And this proves why open shelf libraries are so essential: you find things you didn’t even know you were looking for. It jolts you out of your everyday and wearisome rote.

Now, greedy little monster, do behave and join your companions over there to digest your food on the night-table!

It is so nice to have a bedroom and two night-tables all to yourself. I have a set of crime fiction books and poetry on the right hand side, and the current books plus library books on the left hand side. These neat little skyscrapers are not so popular with Zoe, who tries to balance precariously on them as she joins me for some evening reading. Maybe she is jealous that the TBR pile gets fed more frequently than she does (or so she thinks). Maybe some day she will learn to jump up at the foot of the bed instead…