Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts

As a preliminary note, I will mention that I (David) am going two weeks in a row. Kim has been working on Les Misérables and needs another week to get through it. Anyone who has taken a crack at that book will understand. Les Misérables is huge. It took me a solid week to get through that one, and that was when my wife was out of the country and I had totally uninterrupted, solitary reading time. Anyway, to give Kim a little more breathing room on Les Misérables, I’ll look this week at Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts.

 

This project doesn’t seem to have me run across a great number of fantasy works. There are a few here and there, but most (though far from all) of the books in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books are definitely literary realism. I am the first to admit, this is probably due to the preferences of the literary establishment as opposed to a proof about the quality of fantasy novels. There are plenty of amazing fantasy novels out there, they just don’t get talked about as much by ‘literary’ people. Frankly, I am just as bad as anyone else on this, so it was good to break out of my current comfort zone a little bit and look at Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 6th for Lydia Millet.)

I mean, what else could you call War with the Newts other than fantasy? Sure, it is written in as literary a manner as anyone could ask, full of themes about nationalism, corporations, consumerism, and the folly of mankind. Still, it is a book from the thirties about giant, intelligent (they learn to talk, study science, and many other things), bi-pedal newts. How else would you classify something like that?

Take one crusty sea-captain. Have him run across a sheltered cove of a tropical island where the remaining population of an ancient race of newt creatures can be found. For some reason, he takes a liking to the things. He forms a plan to form colonies of the creatures in various parts of the globe and use them to harvest pearls.

Of course, most of the book takes place in how mankind (somewhat predictably, though comedic to the extent that it isn’t tragic) then deals with the newts:

G. H. Bondy: ‘Gentlemen, let us forgo the idea straight away that we could possibly maintain our monopoly in Newts in the future. Unfortunately, under existing regulations, we can’t take out a patent on them.’ (Laughter) ‘We can and must maintain our privileged position with regards to the Newts in another way; an indispensable condition, of course, will be that we tackle our business in a different style and on a far greater scale than hitherto.’ (Hear, hear!) ‘Here, Gentlemen, we have a whole batch of provisional agreements. The Board of Directors proposes that a new vertical trust be set up under the name of The Salamander Syndicate. The members of this Syndicate would be, apart from our Company, a number of major enterprises and financially powerful groups: for example, a certain concern which would manufacture special patented metal instruments for the Newts – ‘ (Are you referring to MEAS?) ‘Yes, sire, I am referring to MEAS. Further, a chemical and foodstuffs cartel which would produce cheap patented feedingstuff for the Newts; a group of transportation companies which – making use of experience gained so far – would take out patents on special hygienic tanks for the transport of Newts; a block of insurance firms which would undertake the insurance of the animals purchased against injury or death during transportation and at their places of work; further various other interested parties in the fields of industry, export and finance which, for weighty reasons, we will not name at this stage.

Nor is the commercialistic exploitation of the Newts the only non-surprising way that man deals with the newts. Just consider this passage from a section of articles related to the development of the ‘newt situation’:

Their flesh has also been considered to be unfit for consumption and indeed poisonous; when eaten raw it causes acute pain, vomiting, and sensual hallucinations. Dr Hinkel established after numerous experiments conducted on himself that these harmful effects disappear if the cut meat is scalded with hot water (as in the case of some toadstools) and after thorough rinsing is pickled for twenty-four hours in a weak permanganate solution. After that it can be boiled or steamed, and will taste like inferior beef. In this way we consumed a Newt we used to call Hans; it was an educated and clever animal with a special talent for scientific work; it used to be employed in Dr Hinkel’s department as his laboratory assistant and could be trusted with the most exacting chemical analyses. We used to have long chats with it in the evenings, amused by its insatiable thirst for knowledge. We were sorry to lose our Hans but he had lost his sight in the course of my trepanation experiments. His meat was dark and spongy but there were no unpleasant aftereffects.

In short, the newts are exploited much as any other cheap labor source that society has determined is not a person has typically been exploited over time. In the interests of money (and poor judgment), newts soon outnumber humans by a frightening degree. I think you can guess what happens next.

For me, this book took a little bit to get going and did get a bit preachy at times. Still, once it did get going, I enjoyed the book immensely. Čapek creates a captivating world with these newts, one about which I was fascinated to read. Fantasy might not be my favored choice right now, but I did like War with the Newts

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