Newts, you say? What could that possibly mean?
Published in 1936, War with the Newts is one of the last novels by Czech author Karel Capek, and is a thinly-veiled satire on, well, on a whole lot of things, but mainly on fascism. Capek was fiercely anti-fascist. A few years after this book was published, the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia and Capek was branded a public enemy, but he had already passed away by then from pneumonia. War with the Newts, full of commentary on fascism, colonialism, capitalism and nationalism – all the isms – , slipped away from the public eye after those events, and it may have something to do with its contents. The Nazis blacklisted it, naturally, and later on Czechia disappeared behind the Iron Curtain. The book is not well known in Western Europe and the English-speaking world. For years it was out of print and hard to get hold of. Nevertheless, it inspired a number of adaptations, mainly stage plays, and influenced future writers who were lucky enough to find a copy.
So, what about those newts, then? The book starts with the corpulent, swearing, red-in-the-face Dutch captain Van Toch, who finds a species of intelligent salamanders on an island in Indonesia. The salamanders, child-sized and with little baby-hands, waddle about like penguins and imitate Van Toch as he opens shells with his knife. Van Toch takes a liking to them and brings the newts along with him all across the Dutch Indies, looking for pearls. And that’s just the start of it. The imitation game continues, and soon the newts learn how to talk, read newspapers and perform labour.
Despite this book being from another age, Capek affects a playful style with some typical techniques like exaggeration and comedic repetition that still feels fresh and timeless today. I mentioned the swearing captain, who is introduced to us as if he walked straight out of an Asterix comic. You could almost see the comic panels in which his head turns from red to purple to blue as he negotiates with an Indonesian tribesman. The book doesn’t really stick with main characters. It flits all over the world from person to person, like World War Z, and incorporates records, news clippings, reports and so on. Through this lens we see the rise of the newts. Capek shows what a versatile writer he is by playing around with narrator perspectives and different approaches of exposition, through dialogues, thoughts, reports or directly to the reader. I really enjoyed his prose and the range he shows.
Modern day SF writers such as, say, Adrian Tchaikovsky or Charles Stross would invent a whole technological framework and setting to explain how these creatures are “uplifted”, but not Capek. Back in 1936 such ideas weren’t around, although he adds a little commentary on evolution. HG Wells could invent a mad scientist for this in The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), but George Orwell didn’t pull any sciencey excuses out of a hat in his allegorical Animal Farm (1945), and that is the direction Capek’s story is ultimately going. As the newts multiply, are hired out as labour force, rebel and finally compete with humanity, we are two-thirds into the book, and Capek’s approach has changed from a Jack London-like adventure tale to a clear indication that he wrote this while Nazism was on the rise across the border in Germany.
From the middle of the book onwards, the academic reports and newspaper clippings start to overwhelm the story and there I could have used some more scene setting and character interaction. The book effectively morphs from a regular novel to an epistolary one. And while this is effective to give a picture of events that spread across the world, the narrative starts to feel like a montage and I found myself missing the quirky characters from the first part of the novel. Capek dives deep into all sorts of questions about the Newts: do they have rights? Can they be married? Can they be baptised? Are they cattle? These thought experiments are quite funny, but the prose becomes rather dry and stuffy.
But these Newts, man! This the Newt Age! With the Newt Problem. It’s such an odd premise that it carries its own intrinsic hilarity. They are an unusual object for allegory. Capek could easily have used robots for the same story, but he already did that, sort of, in R.U.R. (1920). By making it newts, Capek has a better way of showing how we humans can take something that is totally harmless, exploit it and make it our own downfall.
It wasn’t always easy to read, and at times felt slow and overly descriptive, but the way Capek explores this crazy premise from every angle makes it memorable, and the final chapter is brilliant.