WAR WITH THE NEWTS BY KAREL CAPEK

A few years ago a friend of mine sent me an email containing a link to a newspaper article. This article referred to the discovery of, if I remember correctly, a previously unknown type of lobster. Underneath the article my friend had written: ‘How long before this ends up on a plate in some restaurant?’ To which I replied with something like: ‘They’ll probably dissect it or fuck it first.’ It has long been a running joke between us that with anything we – by which I mean human beings – encounter on this planet our instinct is to see if there is some way that we can exploit it. All in the name of progress, of course, a progress that, it strikes me, has always been, and will always be, paid for with gallons of blood.

Karel Čapek was a Czech writer, whose work – including plays, essays, novels – was published in the early part of the 20th century. He is probably most well-known for coining the term robot, but his dystopian novel War With the Newts appears to have become the go-to text, the one that, if Čapek is read at all, is most popular with modern readers. In short, the book describes the discovery of a species of intelligent newts by a Captain Van Toch, a Czech seaman, who teaches them how to speak, and how to fight their enemies [the sharks], in return for pearls. While at this stage, the relationship between man and newt could be said to be mutually beneficial and respectful, it does not take long before they are being ruthlessly exploited and oppressed.

“Besides, people never regard anything that serves and benefits them as mysterious; only the things which damage or threaten them are mysterious.”

Even on the basis of this brief description it ought to be clear that War With the Newts is not solely concerned with amphibious creatures. It is, indeed, generally considered to be a satire, an allegorical story pertaining to colonialism, whereby the newts are a stand-in for any number of indigenous peoples. I have repeated myself numerous times recently regarding my dissatisfaction with allegory and certain kinds of satire, but this book is, in my opinion, one of the more amusing, successful and complex examples. So, while there is some fairly obvious stuff about slave trading – the ‘dark-skinned’ newts are captured and sent all around the world to work for human masters – there are also more subtle and interesting barbs.

For example, the newts have a ritual, a kind of native dance that periodically takes place at night. This dance is considered by humans to be dubious in some vague way, as something to be suspicious of; and as the newts become more ‘civilised’ [i.e. humanised] they too, it is said, come to feel ashamed of it. Furthermore, Van Toch’s arming of the newts is significant. He, as noted, respects them, he gives them knives so that they can defend themselves, but he does not do so for purely altruistic reasons, but also in order to, in a sense, have access to their natural resources [the pearls under the sea]. This is very similar to what the UK and US governments have done in places like Iraq, where we have given them our cast-offs, our out-of-date weapons etc, in return for oil.

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One of the most rewarding, and surprising, aspects of Čapek’s novel, his allegory, is that, unlike with something like The Master and Margarita, the Czech was able to breathe life into his characters, both in terms of the oppressed and the oppressors. The newts are charming and likeable, and therefore their fate, their treatment at the hands of human beings, is moving. Take Andy, the lizard at London Zoo, who learns to speak English and reads the newspapers. His interview with the authorities is one of the novel’s highlights, as he answers the questions with information he has picked up in the media. Then there is the Czech-speaking newt who makes friends with a holidaying Czech couple. He longs to visit his homeland, a land he has not and will never see! The creatures are, by and large, innocent, funny, trusting, intelligent; they are like precocious children, and one cannot help but feel for them and want to protect them. Likewise, the blustering Van Toch isn’t merely a one- dimensional, heartless profiteer; in fact, it is not until he has passed away that the newts are exposed to the worst human behaviour, for it is said that he would not have allowed them to be brutalised while he was alive [and here we see a subtle psychological distinction between exploitation and severe physical mistreatment].

What gives the novel even greater depth is that it just as engaging, if not more so, if one overlooks the allegory and takes it on face value. In this way, it has a lot to say about the treatment of animals and the importance of animal welfare. First of all, to return to Andy, he dies when he is fed too many sweets by well-meaning, but careless or thoughtless, people. Think about certain fat cats or dogs you may have seen, which are habitually ‘treated’ by owners who do not understand or take seriously the responsibility of looking after an animal. Čapek also touches upon the use of exotic animals for amusement or spectacle, such as those poor tigers and bears one encounters in certain countries. In War with the Newts one man has himself a very ill show lizard, which is made to perform in a tent. Likewise, one could see the working newts as akin to the animals that we use or have used for farming, for pulling carriages; things like pit ponies and so on. There is even a mention of newt farming, when it wasn’t until very recently that battery farming became a hot topic.

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This is a book that is teeming with ideas, with intelligence and compassion; and there is so much more that one could focus on or discuss [I haven’t even mentioned tyranny, socialism, fascism]. I don’t, however, want to go over everything, I would like to leave some things for you to discover for yourself. Having said that, I am going to write a few sentences about one further notable theme, one that particularly interests me, which is the arrogance of the human race as it seeks to impose its will on the natural world and have it reflect himself. Once it is discovered that the newts can speak, numerous countries are adamant that they ought to speak their language; there is a drive to get them to wear clothes, etc. This is something I have touched upon before in other reviews, but, to reiterate, I find the obsession to remake non-human things in our image absurd and really quite depressing. One could, of course, also see this attitude as a comment on colonialism, in that what these people are essentially saying is that something is only worthwhile if it is like me; and this is how certain indigenous people are and have been treated. So, if they do things like we [civilised Europeans] do, well, then that is ok, they are human beings, and deserve rights and all that, but if they do not? If they eat things we wouldn’t eat? If they speak a language we do not understand? Savages! Barbarians! Sub-humans!

“Gentlemen, four-fifths of the earth’s surface is covered by seas; that is unquestionably too much; the world’s surface, the map of oceans and dry land, must be corrected. We shall give the world the workforce of the sea, gentlemen. This will no longer be the style of Captain van Toch; we shall replace the adventure story of pearls by the hymnic paean of labour.”

I was asked the other day to describe War With the Newts and, not wanting to give the impression that it is a piece of fluff, a silly b-movie in novel form, I said that it is ‘Moby Dick crossed with Dr. Strangelove.’ Some of what I have written so far ought to give weight to this statement. Like Dr. Strangelove it is a superior satire; like Melville’s great novel it is open to numerous compelling interpretations, etc. One other thing that is worth mentioning in this regard is Čapek’s  style. The novel includes chapters that stand as excellent short stories, newt anecdotes, newspaper articles, some fairly rigorous science, and engaging little essays [the best of these being Wolf Meynert’s communistic interpretation of the newt community and their glorious future!]. One is given all kinds of information about the creatures – their history, their biology, and much more – so that one comes to feel as though one is something of an expert on them. War with the Newts is an immersive experience, an in-depth look into the world of newts in the same way that Moby Dick is for whales. And now that I have read the book, now that I have had this experience, I can say that, in the event of war, I am firmly with the newts, man. Fuck humanity, we’ve had our chance.

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4 comments

  1. Excellent review, and I’m with you on this one. The book has so many different elements and the animal cruelty aspect did resonate with me (as a veggie). Humans have messed this planet up so much in ways that I don’t think the newts (or any other animal) could ever have done.

    1. Thanks a lot. I need to edit this and reread it a couple of times before I’m satisfied. It’s funny because I was worried about reviewing it, thinking I wouldn’t have much to say, and yet I had to stop myself from writing more. I think it’s a wonderful book. The animal [newt] cruelty really moved me.

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