Thursday, March 8, 2018

War With the Newts, by Karel Čapek

Northwestern University Press
European Classics, 1999
originally published as Valka s mloky, 1936
translated by M & .R. Weatherall
370 pp


"... we are all responsible for it."

Anyone who has not yet read this book should run, not walk, to find a copy.  I don't particularly care for apocalyptic fiction but this book is absolutely brilliant.  I'll also argue that although written in the 1930s, it's still highly relevant today in many ways; it's one that can go on the list of "timeless" books, making it a true classic.   It's also the epitome of offbeat, quirky, satirical and sardonic, which puts it squarely in my wheelhouse.  And even as humankind makes its journey toward the end of civilization as we know it, as it continues to sow the seeds of its own destruction,  god help me, I couldn't help but laugh through a huge part of this book.  I'm sitting here giggling with embarrassment  right now thinking how callous that makes me sound, but you really have to read it to understand.

The book chronicles the journey to the "War with the newts" in a sort of documentary style, beginning at the island of Tana Masah "right on the equator, a bit to the west of Sumatra..."  It is there that Captain J. van Toch has sailed, hoping to find a new source of pearl-bearing oysters.  He's told that there is a "strip of coast" where no one will go into the water because of "Sharks, and all the rest," along with "sea devils" which the natives refer to as "Tapa." Eventually he gets one poor guy to get in the water at Devil's Bay, where he comes back not only with oysters but also with reports of "thousands of devils."  These devils are actually salamanders, some "as big as seals."   van Toch gets the idea that if he can "make those lizards tame, and train them, ...they'll bring me the pearl-shells."  He also gets the idea that to fight the shark problem, he'll arm these tapa-boys  with knives.   The captain sees endless possibilities here, and later, back on land, explains to a potential investor that  that if only he had the right kind of ship he could transport these lizards anywhere he liked.  If he could take them and drop them in the ocean here and there...

... and thus it begins.

The author uses a number of different narrative styles to relate the history of the newts and the "steps of civilization"  -- there are personal accounts, scientific (and pseudoscientific) reports, letters, meeting minutes, newspaper cuttings, etc.etc., all in an effort to (as revealed in the introduction) "make his science fiction more lifelike." There are pictures of business cards, handwritten notes, and several changes in typeface that help to achieve that goal.  Čapek

"patterned his narrative on the events of the time, the catchwords, the diplomatic maneuvers, and the advertising slogans, and he made allusions to living people in their work. " (xviii)
It's a great strategy, and it works.  As this sort of documentarized history proceeds, though, it's what's under all of this that really draws our attention -- rampant capitalism on an epic scale.  With the newts, who require very little cost outlay other than food, the world has an unlimited supply of cheap labor:
"They have learned to use machines and numbers... They have omitted from human civilization everything that was without purpose, diverting, fantastic, or ancient; in this way they have left out all that is human, and have taken over only the portion that is practical, technical, and utilitarian."
 The question is at what cost, but I'll leave that for other readers to discover.

It's impossible not to notice parallels with  history up to the time this book was written -- slavery, exploitation, reform movements, immigration, and at the end, you'll get a shocking jolt as you realize what is behind the actual "war with the newts." Careful readers will notice the ongoing foreshadowing of what's to come, so read this book slowly.   At the same time, because of the parallels to our own time, it's also impossible not to realize that this could could have been published in the last decade or so -- hell, it could have been published last week!

Yes, while a book about a war with newts might seem, as one of my friends calls it, "preposterous," there is definitely a method in the author's madness, as well as a lesson to be heeded.  Do yourself a favor and as I said, run, do not walk, to find a copy.

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