6) War with the Newts: Karel Čapek’s prescient, dystopian magnum opus

'Válka s Mloky', photo: repro Karel Čapek, 'Válka s mloky' / Československý spisovatel, 1986

Karel Čapek’s last major novel, War with the Newts, is considered a satirical dystopian masterpiece, both prescient and timeless, uniquely Czech and yet universal. Like much of his work, the book can be read on many levels while its structure transcends standard genres. On the surface, it’s a work of science fiction about how a species of giant, intelligent newts – docile by nature – are ruthlessly exploited, and finally turn on their human oppressors. Along the way, Čapek gently pillories science and journalism (two of his principal preoccupations), robber baron capitalism, fascism, and even Hollywood. And yet, despite the all-pervasive humour, his core message was deadly serious one.

'Válka s Mloky',  photo: repro Karel Čapek,  'Válka s mloky' / Československý spisovatel,  1986

For the first twenty years after the founding of Czechoslovakia in 1918, Karel Čapek was the nation’s leading novelist, playwright, newspaper columnist, travel writer and critic. In this edition of our series ‘the Czech books you must read’, we present the novel War with the Newts, which Čapek wrote over the summer of 1935, two years after Hitler came to power, convinced Nazi Germany posed a threat not just to liberal democracy in Europe but to Czechoslovakia itself. In Čapek’s words:

“At that time – it was last spring, when the world was looking unbelievably bad economically, and politically still worse – on some occasion or other I wrote this sentence: ‘You mustn’t think that the evolution which gave rise to our form of life was the only evolutionary possibility on this planet.’ And that was it. That sentence is to blame for my writing War with the Newts.”

Čapek’s novel begins something in the vein of travel adventure story. The first character readers are introduced to is a foul-mouthed Czech sea captain by the name of J. Van Toch, who is moored off a remote Indian Ocean island on the equator, in search of pearls.

There, in what the locals call Devil Bay, his crew of Sinhalese divers encounter hundreds of jet-black creatures over a metre in length (or rather in height), and refuse to hunt there for pearls. Captain van Toch, however, soon discovers that these “sea devils”, are quite docile, friendly, altogether clever and – most fortuitously – love eating oysters as much as his paymasters love pearls.

Captain van Toch gives the creatures knives to shuck oysters, which they had struggled to open with their tiny claws, in exchange for pearls. He teaches them to speak and outfits them with harpoons to ward off sharks, their only natural enemies. As the pearl trade grows, so does the Czech seaman’s fondness for the “lizards”, as he calls the giant salamanders (the Newts), along with his appetite for expanding the pearl trade.

While on leave back in landlocked Czechoslovakia, Captain van Toch is interviewed by a pair of journalists desperate for a story to fill their newspaper during the “cucumber season”, when nothing much is happening. They suggest he seek financial backing to buy his own boat from a Czech named G.H. Bondy based in Amsterdam – a “captain of industry” – whom Van Toch knew from childhood (and bullied due to his Jewish background).

In this passage, Van Toch tells an incredulous Bondy how the pearl trade with the Newts began one moonlight night, for the admittedly drunken sailor:

‘All round in the water were several hundred of those lizards, poking their mugs out of the water and staring at me. And I – as I said, I was sloshed – sat down on my heels and began to twist like that lizard, so he shouldn’t be afraid of me, see? And then another lizard came out of the water, about as tall as a 10-year-old, and also started waddling. And in his front paw he was holding that pearl-oyster. ‘Of course, I was absolutely pissed, and so I said to him: okay, smart guy, you want me to open that shell for you? Well, come over here then, I can open it for you with my knife. But he didn’t move, he was still afraid. So, I started twisting again, as if I were a little girl who’s bashful of somebody. Then he waddled up closer and I slowly put out my hand and took the shell from his paw.”

The ‘Salamander Syndicate’

Within a few years of that fateful encounter, Van Toch has died, the Newt population has exploded, and Bondy is head of the “Salamander Syndicate”, a colossal enterprise that will ruthlessly exploit the giant salamanders, breeding and selling them into slave labour. The semi-aquatic Newts are put to building massive underwater projects, and trained to protect the shorelines of the countries that have bought them.

In a typical passage dripping in irony, and parodying the unfeeling detachment of a bureaucrat, Čapek’s narrator relays:

“Nowadays, we simply cannot wait a few hundred years for something good or bad to happen in the world. Take the migration of peoples, which used to drag on over several centuries: today, with our present organisation of transport, it could be accomplished in three years; otherwise, there would be no profit in it. ‘The same is true of the liquidation of the Roman Empire, the colonisation of the continents, the extermination of the Red Indians, and so on. All these things could have been accomplished incomparably more speedily had they been put in the hands of entrepreneurs with a lot of capital behind them. In that respect, the huge success of the Salamander Syndicate and its powerful influence on world history undoubtedly points the way to the future.”

Čapek, the son of a Bohemian village doctor, was born on 9 January 1890. In his youth, he was inclined towards the hard sciences and studied biology at Charles University in Prague before gravitating to philosophy – influenced by a professor by the name of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (who went on to become independent Czechoslovakia’s first president and a lifelong friend).

After finishing university, Čapek gravitated towards the written word, and became a prolific author in all manner of genres. But he remained fascinated with biology, the natural world, humanity’s place in it and propensity to cock things up in the name of progress.

'Válka s Mloky',  1965,  photo: repro Karel Čapek,  'Válka s mloky' / SNKLU,  1965

Rossum's Universal Robots

Čapek’s most popular work during his lifetime was his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) from 1920, which introduced into the English language the word “robot”, which derives from the Czech term for “forced labour” or “serf”.

In R.U.R, Čapek posited the dire possibilities should science succeed in creating a form of subhuman life, capable of performing the work of the world. Today, the play reads almost like a rough draft of War with the Newts, which Čapek wrote in the summer months of 1935, when also deeply concerned by the rise of Nazi Germany.

Czech novelist and playwright Ivan Klíma, in his 2001 biography Karel Čapek: Life and Work, writes:

“Čapek’s Newts remind us, in many ways, of his Robots, which were living beings and not machines as we understand the term ‘robot’ today. The danger lay in the fact that they became the object of a ruthless, rigidly logical business, and that their utilization served utopian and technocratic visions. It was this process, the exploitation of industrious and easily reproducible beings, that Čapek tried to capture even more dramatically in his utopia about the Newts.”

The Newts are a metaphor for the growth of fascism and runaway capitalism throughout Europe, as well as humanity’s increasing reliance on environmentally destructive technology (including invasive species). This is most evident when the “Chief Salamander” who wages the war reveals himself and the Newt’s demands via radio broadcasts, a clear allusion to Adolf Hitler’s hyperbolic speeches.

Karel Čapek,  photo: Public Domain
Ivan Klíma survived four years of internment as a boy in the Jewish ghetto and concentration camp of Terezín, and wrote his academic thesis on Karel Čapek – having been given permission to do so by communist authorities, provided that he focused on his antifascist works. Klíma argues:

“No writer in Czechoslovakia (and very few elsewhere in the world) reacted with such accuracy and at the same time such passion to the Nazi takeover, which, unfortunately, the majority of intellectuals and politicians in the democratic world considered at first to be merely an episode unworthy of getting worked up over. …

“Čapek, unlike many intellectuals, was less interested in the economic, class, and political causes of totalitarian upheavals. For him, the fact of most consequence was the failure of educated people, their willingness to serve totalitarian systems.”

Klíma’s biography of Čapek was commissioned by Catbird Press, an American publishing house, and written with a foreign audience in mind. Catbird was founded a few years ahead of the centenary of Čapek’s birth by Robert Weschler, who had honeymooned in Prague in the eighties, fell in love with Czech culture, and admittedly became “obsessed” with Čapek – he even named his pet Tibetan terrier after the Czech writer.

“At first, I was drawn to his humour. I found it very intelligent, but easy to read, satirical but in a very gentle way. And the way he always skewered everything that was taken for granted or taken as Gospel.”

I have the feeling that I’m missing half the points Čapek is trying to get across in War with the Newts. Much of it is quite specific to the Czech language, the Czech character, to the situation in those days. Do you feel that to be the case? Have you re-read it, and gotten more out of it the second time?

“Well, you keep seeing new things in it – there’s no doubt about it. And it’s extremely universal and at the same time extremely Czech, which makes it very unusual. Even then, one of the things that really characterizes Čapek, compared to most great writers, is that he wrote on different levels. He was really a great democrat – in every sense – and wanted his works to be readable.

“If you read his early stories, they were very difficult. But, as he got older, he very quickly changed to writing on different levels so that everybody gets different things out of it. On the surface, it can seem relatively simple. But, when you look more closely, you see more and more. If you know more of the history, if you catch his literary allusions, then it’s very complex.

“This has been a problem. Scholars haven’t always taken him as seriously because his work seems so accessible and because he liked to play with genres – like science fiction and mysteries.”

'Válka s Mloky',  photo: repro Karel Čapek,  'Válka s mloky' / Československý spisovatel,  1986

Karel Čapek as a ‘Cubist’ writer

In telling the tale of the Newts, Čapek blends the second-person narration of a detached chronicler, along with an array of contemporary “reports”, written in a parody of the corresponding styles. These include scientific papers (describing in grim detail the effect of experiments on these sentient beings); briefings for Salamander Syndicate shareholders; and newspapers cuttings archived by Bondy’s doorman, a simple Czech man named Povondra, who let Captain van Toch in to see his boss, and so believes he set the whole Newt trade in motion.

It seems to me, he played with genres in War with the Newts more than in anything else he’s written – not just in the style, or language, but even the typeface and all kinds of aspects, to create a whole believable world around this story.

“Well, another way of putting this – he really used a lot of parody in everything he did, but especially in War with the Newts. He’s constantly playing with all the different ways in which different kinds of people – journalists, politicians, scientists – express themselves. He plays with their views of the world.

Photo: Catbird Press
“He was really all about perspective, you know. I consider him the great ‘Cubist’ writer because he always tried to see everything from multiple perspectives, often at the same time. That’s most true in War with the Newts – in his trilogy Three Novels, he does it in a much more philosophical way, and very self-consciously; but here, it’s in a more fun way, and uses parody as a major part of his humour, in addition to satire.

“What makes it so special, I suppose, is he does so many different things within the novel; it’s constantly changing. It’s all done pretty straightforwardly – it’s not over the top – the variety is what is sort of extreme about it. The prose is calm, but the ideas are constantly changing.

“He’s trying to create a whole world, as you said, of different kinds of people responding to these Newts. So, everyone makes of the Newts what they want them to be, from their professional or personal viewpoint. It’s quite a sophisticated way of approaching something, I think. And it’s not always just in fun – as it gets further in, it gets more and more serious.”

As with many of Čapek’s books, Catbird Press founder Robert Weschler notes, War with the Newts was serialized in the newspaper Lidové noviny, the chief organ of the liberal democratic views of Masaryk and later President Eduard Beneš. Only the last four of the twenty-seven chapters of the novel deal with the eponymous war. The rest tracks the discovery of the Newts, their exploitation and evolution, and growing tensions as their numbers – and habitat – expand.

Many consider the novel to be the greatest of all works by Čapek, who in his short life was nominated seven times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Robert Weschler again:

“I think it’s one of the most enjoyable and thought-provoking novels every written. It’s constantly changing, surprising. It’s a reading experience like no other. That’s what I tell people.”

Karel Čapek died on Christmas Day, 1938, of pneumonia (some say it was of a broken heart, in the wake of Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia’s borders). He did not live to experience the horrors of the Second World War, or know just how prescient his last major novel had been.

Not so Karel’s equally democratically minded elder brother, Josef, a poet and Cubist painter who invented the word ‘robot’ Karel made famous, was among the first Czech intellectuals arrested by the Gestapo after the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, in September 1939, imprisoned in the Nazis camps of Dachau and Buchenwald, and died in Bergen-Belsen.

Author: Brian Kenety