The OF Blog: Karel Čapek, War with the Newts

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Karel Čapek, War with the Newts

More than any other century, the 20th century (and particularly its first half) is known for its dystopic novels. In an age of great upheaval brought about first by the calamitous Great War/World War I, which gave rise to the Bolshevik Revolution, Fascism, National Socialism, and the conflicts these three daughter movements caused, so much faith in the almost holy notion of "progress" was lost.  Whether one looks at Zamyatin's We, Huxley's Brave New World, or Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984, the effects of this disillusionment are widely evident.  Technology is treacherous, at least as prone to betrayal as the humans surrounding the books' protagonists.  There is a vague menace in each of these books, as if "progress" was the Edenic apple being offered by the totalitarian ruler/serpent.  The palpable sense of fear and worry that radiates throughout these texts makes for exciting, troublesome reads.

Czech writer Karel Čapek wrote in 1936 an allegorical/SF novel that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the classics noted above.  His War with the Newts is in many senses an even more dystopic novel than the four novels listed above.  Instead of rooting the problems in a rapacious and/or uncaring society or government, Čapek goes further, attempting to bare the sordid shared human past and how horribly we have treated ourselves and others in the past and present.  Despite being written nearly 75 years ago, War with the Newts still has the power to unsettle us, since so few of the issues referenced there have ever really been resolved.

The story begins with the discovery of a rare, humanoid-shaped species of newts in the South Indian Ocean near Indonesia.  The discoverers quickly discover that this hitherto unknown newt species is extremely intelligent and is capable of learning and speaking human languages.  Just before discovery, the captain of the merchant ship in the area is incredulous when a native tells him of the "tapas" who inhabit this area.  The dialogue is rather revealing, as it mirrors what happens later when a "tapa" is taken into captivity:

Captain J. van Toch turned crimson.  "What?" he bawled.  "You dirty Cuban, you think that I shall be frightened of your devils?  We'll see about that," he cried, rising with all the greatness of his honest fourteen stones.  "I'm not going to waste my time here with you when I have my business to look after.  But remember there aren't any devils in Dutch colonies; if there are any anywhere, then they're in the French ones.  There might be some there.  And now fetch me the mayor of this damned kampong here." (p. 17)
Note the casual dismissal of a native's account.  Pay close attention to the dehumanizing "devils."  The unknown or rumor of the unknown often brings forth charges of the object/entity being non-human, often vaguely threatening to any sense of propriety that the holder of these opinions may have.  But what happens after first contact?  Well, what would you think people would do with a verified sentient being that has been captured?

Some time later Sir Charles was sitting beside Professor Petrov and discussing the so-called animal intelligence, conditioned reflexes, and how popular ideas overrate the reasoning powers of animals.  Professor Petrov expressed his doubts about the Elberfeld horses which, it was said, could not only count, but also raise a number to a higher power and find the square root of a number; "for not even a normal, intelligent man can extract the square root of a number, can he?" said the great scientist.  Sir Charles remembered Gregg's talking salamander.  "I have a salamander here," he began with hesitation, "it's that one known as Andrias Scheuchzeri, and it's learned to talk like a cockatoo." (pp. 114-115)
From demon to being treated like an animal.  It is really surprising that Čapek's narrative follows closely the treatment of indigenous groups at the hands of an invading, "colonizing" power?  For the first first or so of the novel, the newts are shown to be very adaptable, intelligent creatures; the humans around them are boorish, self-satisfied, rather bigoted individuals who deign to believe that the newts are suffering from this malign treatment.  A whole host of social issues, ranging from slavery to the exploitation of the proletariat by the leisure classes, underlies this first part of the novel.

But Čapek is not content to make just an allegory for human mistreatment of other humans.  Instead, he goes further, referencing World War I and the militarism of the German, Italian, Polish, and Russian governments of the 1930s.  While the newts have managed to gain some half-hearted recognition that they are not to be enslaved, the menial drudgery that they undertake in the coastal regions is supplemented by secretive arming plans by the Great Powers that are supplying "their" newts with undersea-adapted weapons.  Yet despite this arms race, the Great Powers fail to grasp the demographic pressures facing the newts as their population swells to several times that of the human populations.  Here, the echoes of Lebensraum are found in the increasingly strident demands of the hidden, secretive "Chief Salamander."  When his demands are unmet, the newts unleash destructive explosive devices that cause massive earthquakes and the creation of new coastal plains for the newts to live.  The humans go to war with them, but they are threatened with destruction by an enemy that has surpassed them without any ever realizing beforehand just how dangerous they had become.

War with the Newts is a powerful allegorical tale of how easy it is for people to ignore the needs and desires of others, how quick people can be to subjugate another group, just because of slight differences in appearance and customs.  These themes are not rooted in any one time (despite Čapek's references to "Nordic Salamanders" and other plays on Nazi racial laws), but instead are universal human concerns that have plagued societies for millennia.  Čapek addresses these issues in a way that makes for a fast-paced yet instructive read that leaves the reader with much to consider.  As a dystopia, War with the Newts is scary in just how plausible its thematic elements (e.g. of how casual dismissal of one group could lead to that group rising up to overthrow the established order)  still can be in this age and time.  It is a novel that survives the test of time precisely because of how "current" its concerns are even now in the early 21st century.  Highly recommended.


Daniel Ausema said...

I'd just stumbled on a reference to this book a few weeks ago, and it sounded interesting. Thanks for reviewing it--this makes it even more intriguing to me. I'll have to search it out.

Larry said...

You're welcome. I've heard of him for years now, but it wasn't until I found this book at a used bookstore that I decided to take the plunge. Glad I did, as you can probably tell from the review.

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