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.