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.


  1. I got hold of The Elephant and Old Masters (both wonderful; the Bernhard is quite brilliant in particular thus far, and as you say, unlike anything else – I haven’t finished it yet (a terrible habit) because I don’t want to) and will, eventually, get the set. Capek (as these things are wont to happen) seems to have been mentioned rather a lot recently by writers I admire so it’s a double no-brainer.

  2. Josef Škvorecký is a remarkable writer as well, from that Penguin list. Though I like _Engineers of the Human Souls_ better than his first, _The Cowards_.

    At his best Škvorecký combines the vitality of American authors with the sarcasm and knowledge of Middle European writing.

  3. Browsing through the titles in this series, this is the one that caught my eye the most. I remember enjoying Capek’s ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ at school, and your review is so positive – I’m going to go and order War with the Newts now!

  4. must admit capek out series did grab me too johnn ,penguin done good job refreshing these books that had fallen to wayside ,i m waiting to get some next time i m in a bigger book shop as my waterstones not got any of these in stock ,all the best stu

  5. This, along with a separate review on Amazon, makes this sound an absolute hoot. TBR, as they say, TBR…

  6. I thought this was a contemporary work until you pointed out it was written 75 years ago. It sounds incredibly postmodernist.

    Thanks for telling me about Penguin’s Central Europe series. I love translated literature and definitely plan on checking them out.

  7. Huzzah! He’s finally read it!

    This is one of my favourite books, and an ideal example of what science-fiction really can do when it’s done well. You NEED to read Čapek’s ‘R.U.R.’ now. Not only did it invent the word ‘robot’, but it did practically everything with the idea of robots as slaves, as indestructible workers, as immortal warriors, and as rebels that Hollywood has been doing so much worse in the near-century since.

    This really is a fantastic series. I’ve read five of them now (Čapek aside, as I’d already read it), with not a dud in the lot, and am very much looking forward to the rest.

    Another great review, by the way.

  8. This definitely appeals – your review entices me to give this one a go. Penguin’s refusal to reset it is a nuisance, but not a show-stopper.

    I notice that the editor of the Penguin’s Central European Classics is Simon Winder, who’s book Germania has just received a rather glowing review from me – that man stores to much knowledge in his brain cells. The only one I have read in the series is The Snows of Yesteryear

  9. I rushed out to buy this yesterday, and got hold of Davis’ ‘A Meaningful Life’ while I was at it. From the scraps I’ve sampled, both seem highly entertaining. Reading your review of the Capek put me in mind of Bulgakov and Daniil Kharms’ acidly satirical short stories, so I’m interested to see how they compare (though Kharms doesn’t seem comparable to anyone I know of). Interesting to see the Vonnegut endorsement on the back cover, too.

    Shame about the contents page cock-up, as you noted. Your review, though, makes for a great introduction.

  10. Thanks for the comments everyone. JRSM and Annabel, yes, I do need to get around to reading more Capek, specifically R.U.R.. I think Hesperus publish it in the UK. I don’t think there’s much more of his stuff around (not surprising when he died in his late 40s), which is a shame, as my first thought on finishing War with the Newts was, “I must read everything else he’s written!”

    Tom C, thanks for the details on Germania. I had heard Winder’s name as an author years ago, though I can’t remember what book it was of his that I wanted to read. Will have a look for Germania instead.

    And Tom not-C, I don’t think I’ve heard of Kharms, so that’s another one to look out for. Thanks!

    1. Another one I’ve not heard of! Clearly Capek was more productive than I realised. Thanks David.

      I see that his works are also in the public domain, as he died in 1938, so there’s really no excuse for some enterprising publisher not to reissue them in decent editions. (The Absolute at Large seems to be available only in a US university press edition.)

      1. As well as being on my website, my translation of “The War with the Newts” has just been published by Melville House, New York, on paper.

  11. Capek is one of my favourite writers and an author capable of a wide range of output, from dystopian sci-fi to gardening books. War with the Newts is probably my favourite of his works that I’ve read. I’d recommend The Absolute at Large as an ideal companion piece; read a synopsis and you’ll see the connection.

    One word of warning about Capek; he does suffer from poor translations. The version of R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots) I’ve read was rendered almost unreadable by stilted dialogue. The Wetherall’s, who translated this version of Newts, were described by Peter Kussi, the editor of Toward the Radical Center, a collection of Capek’s work, as “competent and well meaning”. Sounds like damning with faint praise, yet they were some of the better translators that he used in his collection.

    So if you’re thinking about trying Capek again I’d have a read of Amazon type sites for any review comments about the translation first.



    1. Thanks for the comment, Kenny, and nice to hear from you again. Interesting that you say Kussi seems to damn the Weatheralls with faint praise: I thought the translation couldn’t have been bettered, myself, though that is a pointless observation I suppose until such times as I read another translation (I see one recently published which was by Ewald Osers, who did the translation of Bernhard’s Old Masters which I read).

      1. It’s a few years since I had my ‘Capek phase’ and given my unreliable memory I’m struggling to recall which translators impressed me more than others. But the terrible version of R.U.R. does stick in the mind, I think it was a Dover thrift edition or some such, as does the impression that the elegance of Capek’s language seemed to vary in a way that would back up Kussi’s comments.

        The version of Newts I read was the one translated by Ewald Osers. Whether it’s superior to the Weatherall’s translation I couldn’t say, but I did enjoy the book every bit as much as you seemed to have done.

  12. But I did press it on you John, I’m sure I’ve recommended this one to you in the past.

    Marvellous, isn’t it? Huge fun and as you say with a lot going on. I’m glad you liked it.

  13. You’ve made this sound intriguing, John. I’ve seen it on lists of great science fictions books in the past but have yet to see a copy of it around. Oddly enough, I’ve set aside some reading time this year for science fiction, a genre I’ve almost entirely neglected in the past except for a few of the classics.

    I must admit my venture into the genre has been pretty hit and miss and probably a lot more miss than hit. I think it’s a truism that the writing in a lot of science fiction isn’t as good as that in literary fiction and that has certainly been my experience so far this year. I want to give it a chance though. So far, nothing has come close to measuring up to Walter Miller’s “A Canticle For Leibowitz” and M.K. Joseph’s “The Hole in The Zero,” the two best scifi books I’ve read. “Altered Carbon” by Richard Morgan was quite entertaining, a noir detective story set in the future, as was Maureen McHugh’s “China Mountain Zhang.”

    1. These two lists are good starting points:



      Speaking of A Canticle For Leibowitz, an even better novel with a similar premise is Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker.

      A series of personal lists of 20 essential (loosely) science fiction books of the past 20 years is here:

      Cheryl’s own list is particularly good.

      1. Thanks for the links, marco. I see in the first list, that someone (not the author of the post) seems to link ‘best’ with ‘most popular’, and goes on to define “novels” as “escapist story-books”! :-o The main downside of the list is that it restricts itself to SF publishers, whereas for most people like John H, I suspect, they’ll get more kicks from SF that isn’t sold as SF.

  14. The first one does that, yes.
    But it is a kind of “political” stance. After all he does favorably review Sf books published outside the genre (most recently Liz Jensen’s The Rapture) while condemning many by-the-numbers commercial genre works.
    Here he wanted to highlight works which were published as SF, and are often unjustly overlooked by the literary mainstream, while at same time shunned by “genre” audiences for their complexity (as proven by the commenter you mentioned). And with that list he presents a pretty good case.

    I’m not sure all the novels in Gibson’s list were initially marketed as Sf, while in the third link Graham Sleight, for instance, includes Cloud Atlas and Against The Day in his list of 20 most influential novels.

  15. As a genre-crosser myself, I find this book sounds interesting. I think we could all start a list of books we came late to and now can’t imagine living (or thinking) without.

  16. If you’re finding Richard Morgan and Maureen F McHugh (she writes in a sub-genre known as Mundane SF) you’re not doing badly John H. Those are good writers.

    Have you seen Sputnik Caledonia? John covered it, as did I, and that’s well worth reading. Otherwise, John Sladek’s Roderick is a very funny black satire and of course most anything by Stanislau Lem is worth reading.

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  18. To whet the appetitie for ‘The Absolute at Large’: a man invents perfect, clean atomic power, which has the unexpected side-effect of producing vast fields of a kind of energy which induces religious belief and the working of miracles. It turns out that the animists were right, and that every object has part of God in it, so when you completely annihilate the mass of an object (via E=mc2) you liberate all of that previously restrained God-ness, and it gets out into the world to create trouble.

  19. I have two favorites – Krakatit and War with the newts.Somehow,i never read R.U.R. even though i have it in very first Czech edition[as i also have the first of edition of Krakatit].His concepts and style are so far ahead of its time it is almost scary.

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