June 10, 2010
Karel Čapek: War with the Newts
Every so often a book comes along that leaves you dizzy with wonder that you haven’t read it before. Why haven’t people been pressing Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts on me since I was old enough to read? (Yes, you see: it’s all your fault.) In fairness, people who did know the book were enthusiastic when I said I was reading it. Now I’m doing my bit.
War with the Newts (1936; tr. M and R Weatherall, 1937) is published as part of Penguin’s Central European Classics series. And what a series it is! Three hits out of three so far makes me sound like a bit of an uncritical fanboy, so I had better point out that I was disappointed by the lack of introductions or other critical apparatus to the ten books in the series, and the fact that most had not been reset but used the old type from earlier editions. (Contrast with the Penguin Decades, all reset and with new introductions.) No doubt cost control is a part of this, and I’d rather have the books like this than not at all. However the absence of the first contents page in this volume seemed to go beyond quirky.
‘Quirky’ – wash my mouth out – is probably how a committee of studio executives would describe a major motion picture adaptation of War with the Newts. Dammit, it is quirky, but by that I mean funny, satirical, unexpected, pithy and possessing the strange quality of being both precisely of its time and bang up to date. It keeps the reader on their toes by introducing new characters, and a new narrative style, in almost every chapter, with only a mischievously satirical air uniting them.
The plot of the book, the conclusion of which is revealed in the title, takes us through a history of man’s discovery of an advanced species of newt on an island “right on the equator, a bit to the west of Sumatra,” a species whose ability to learn quickly and use tools makes them ideal workers for the global pearl industry. Čapek shows – shows off, I suppose – his dazzling range, in chapters which lampoon everything pop-cultural from Hollywood starlets to the modern media: “It was a newspaper man’s dog days when nothing, absolutely nothing, happens, when there are no politics, and not even a European crisis.” It is through the agency of a motley range of these characters – the desperate, the ruthless and the lazy – that the newts come to be used around the world as cheap labour. Throughout the book, underneath the stylistic tricks (typeface switches, footnotes, people who speak in newspaper headlines, fake academic articles), the real subject of Čapek’s scorn is modern commerce and capitalism.
Today we simply cannot wait some hundreds of years for something either good or bad to happen in the world. For instance, the migration of peoples, which used to drag on for ages, can now be managed with the organised transport of today and be all completed in three years; otherwise there is no money in it. It was the same situation with the liquidation of the Roman Empire and the colonization of the continents, the killing off of the Red Indians, and so on. All that could be accomplished today in an incomparably shorter stretch of time if it were entrusted to contractors with plenty of capital behind them.
(75 years ago? It might have been written next week.) To preserve the lives of this valuable commodity while they carry out their pearl fishing, the businesses have come up with a brilliant solution. “Certain inevitable losses which the Newts used to suffer from sharks ceased almost completely when the Newts were provided with underwater revolvers shooting dum-dum bullets for defence against rapacious fish.” See? Čapek is even giving us a bit of dramatic irony and foreshadowing.
The deluded humans blunder on toward their self-inflicted disaster, even as some speculate that “our history has already been played … and we shift our figures with the same moves to the same checks as in times long past.” Sure enough, there are direct references to black slavery. This seems not to trust the reader to pick up such parallels for himself, but there is good reason for it. War with the Newts was written in central Europe in the 1930s, and the obviously and dominating analogy, with hindsight engaged, is with the plight of the Jewish people. Yet the book is broad enough to be open to numerous, and even contradictory, interpretations. (See here [PDF link], where the editor of Penguin’s Central European Classics series, emphasises the equally powerful impression of the Newts representing the Nazis.) Enthusiasm for the Newts, this imported species – these immigrants providing cheap labour – does not last.
As soon as the Newts became a collective and commonplace phenomenon, what we may term their problems altered. The truth is that soon the great Newt sensation passed off to make way for something else, and to some extent something more substantial, that is the Newt problem.
So it’s science fiction, comedy, satire, social commentary, warning, a scrapbook of pastiche – War with the Newts has pretty much everything. I even wondered, when reading the Newt leader’s address to the the human population (“Let us know your price for the south part of Lincolnshire along with Wash”), if Douglas Adams had been inspired by it before writing the Vogons’ “People of Earth, your attention please” speech in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s a book which contains multitudes, and should be read by multitudes.