War With the Newts, Karel Čapek

War With the Newts  by Karel Čapek

Translators: M. Weatherall, R. Weatherall
Penguin Classics
Pages: 348 (Paperback)
Form: Novel
Series: Standalone


War with the Newts (1936) is Karel Čapek’s darkly humorous allegory of early twentieth-century Czech politics. Captain van Toch discovers a colony of newts in Sumatra which can not only be taught to trade and use tools. but also to speak.

As the rest of the world learns of the creatures and their wonderful capabilities, it is clear that this new species is ripe for exploitation – they can be traded in their thousands, will do work no human wants to do, and can fight – but the humans have given no thought to the terrible consequences of their actions.

A very serious contender for my favourite book this year (currently competing against We, The Drowned), I’m having a really hard time thinking what to say about this one. It really is true that positive reviews are harder to write than negative ones, add to this that this is a very complex novel – touching on themes of slavery, fascism, racism, capitalism, exploitation, class conflict, the european arms race, economics, trade unions, human experimentation, the ‘civilising’ mission, the ineffectiveness of the League of Nations, Nazi theories of ‘Lebensraum’ and a hell of a lot more – and the unconventional way it’s written and, well…there’s either too much to say or too little, because there’s simply so much stuff I feel I should be better informed on before I could possibly talk about them. And then the blurb tells me that it’s an allegory for 1930s Czech politics in  and I start feeling even more inadequate in my ability to comment!

Since I don’t feel qualified to talk deeply about the historical specifics I’m going to try to go for the more general approach. Although that extra knowledge and context would have been nice you really don’t need it to understand and appreciate the novel in itself.  The themes, although tailored to reflect the political situation of the 30s are sadly still all too relevant and relatable today. And even with only the broadest and most basic knowledge of its historical context it’s understandable as an allegorical satire of Europe’s own brutal history of oppression, from the slave trade (where the wild newts are beaten senseless, kept in slimy oil slicked tanks, and those that survive the journey sold for extortionate prices) right up to Nazi expansionism (where the newts have propagated so much that they start demanding their aquatic territories be expanded into human territory to provide space for them all). It could so easily have come off heavy-handed and trite but the way Čapek handles it, blaming neither side exclusively but switching their positions, criticising both, and explaining the political and economic reasons such things came to be with incredible dark humour, stops the book from feeling remotely ‘preachy’. It’s a book that made me think, that  absolutely horrified and appalled me in places, but was so spot on with its analysis and caricatures of human nature that you just had to laugh – even as you saw the ‘war with the newts’ becoming ever more inevitable.

It’s a heavy going book, not only in the themes but in the very writing style. It’s one of those books that’s more about ideas than characters and as such there is really no single protagonist. Captain van Toch – who uses frequent racial, national, and anti-Semite slurs but is utterly devoted to the welfare of his newts – is used as the primary character in the first ‘book’ to introduce us to the context of the newts – the size of a child, vaguely humanoid, incredibly intelligent and able to work tools, develop complex skills, and even learn human speech. After that though, as knowledge of the newts becomes widespread and humanity turns to exploiting their abilities for slave labour, the closest thing the novel has to a ‘protagonist’ is a minor character who collects any and all newspaper clippings he can find about the newts. The majority rest of the book up until the final chapters is written almost more as a history textbook than ‘fiction’ drawing on these clippings as primary sources to illustrate its points. Far from finding this dull (as I sometimes do when other books try similar things) this was my absolute favourite section of the story, I loved reading all the different newspaper articles Čapek had come up with to illustrate the different attitudes towards the newts in various times and places. Some were funny – Indians demanding lifesaving newts leave for touching members of the higher castes, others were horrific – the report from a scientific conference where the experiments on newts were outlined, but none felt unnecessary and they all contributed to making the premise feel fleshed out and ‘realistic’ – and to showing the unfolding path humans and newts both took to get to the war of the title. The formating was occasionally a little irritating – several articles were multiple pages long but because they were all in the footnotes you had to flick back afterwards to find where you had left off the main text – but the writing was so solid I could totally forgive it that. What really got me though was the last chapter ‘The Author talks with himself‘ where Čapek breaks the fourth wall to have an argument with himself about if and how the final war could have been avoided. It’s a powerful chapter on its own even if you ignore the context it was written in and the impending Nazi threat to his own country.

I really wish Penguin had deigned to provide an introduction or afterword for this novel, there’s so much in here that could be discussed and contextualised that the non-inclusion of one really is a massive oversight (which their online reading notes don’t really make up for). The extent of my own (and I suspect a lot of British readers) knowledge of Czech politics in this period was the very very broad context for the Nazi takeover given at GCSE and A level lessons but just Googling and Wikipedia-ing the author’s name brought up so much that would really have been relevant. Far from just being a science/speculative-fiction author and the inventor of the word ‘robot’ Čapek was very involved in Czech politics, an outspoken critic of fascism and number two on the Nazi’s list of ‘public enemies’ in the country. In a book where one of the main themes is an allegory of the lead up to World War II (though Čapek died before it came to that) it seems kind of astounding that a publisher like Penguin, well-known for providing insightful scholarly introductions, didn’t bother to include one here.

Probably not a book that is universally approachable or has ‘mass appeal’, it quite possibly it requires an interest and basic understanding of modern European history  (with some of his depictions of the war against the newts it’s almost astounding to hear that he died before WWII ever commenced). I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who doesn’t want anything too heavy going – but it’s made it onto my list of absolute favourites and I will be tracking down any more Čapek that I can and checking out the rest of Penguin’s ‘Central European Classics’ (something I planned to do anyway since I’ve had such success with translated fiction in the last few years). Love, love, love.


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