Sunday, April 17, 2011

War with the Newts by Karel Čapek (1890-1938)

You have probably never heard of Karel Čapek (1). But you have heard the word "robot", which HE invented and introduced to the world on January 26, 1921, in a play called R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots). And if that impresses you, wait until you read War with the Newts.

This is not really a book about newts, though the book demonstrates that the author is familiar with newt biology. Rather, this is a wise, extremely witty novel about the barbarous nature of humankind that uses newts as a plot device.
But it's a fun book, a funny book, and a top-notch read.

The plot is basically this: a Dutch sea captain, Capt. Van Toch, discovers a unique pelagic race of giant newts found only on one island near Sumatra.
This is silly, as we know; newts are not salt-water animals. They don't even tolerate brackish water. But if you can- à la Coleridge- willingly suspend your disbelief, then you are in for a few great laughs and maybe more great insights. He dubs these newts, with a total length of 4'6", Andrias scheuchzeri.
The natives call them “tapa” or “sea-devils” that creepily blink with their bottom eyelids (sic) (2).
The newts want to eat the oysters they can easily get but can't open, and Capt. Van Toch wants pearl oysters but can't dive to get them himself. Also, the major predator of these newts is sharks, so they work out a trade of pearl oysters for harpoons to kill the sharks and knives to open the oysters.
The Captain brings the newts with him on his south sea travels, and thus they begin to spread.
The newts are proficient in building dams, which gives them areas to lay their eggs. They can also repeat human words, and he teaches them how to talk. The Captain finds a financial backer and the newts begin to be sold around the world. No longer mere collectors of pearls and coral, they are hired to do all manner of underwater building: dams, excavations, dykes, etc. Maintaining coastlines, they also build up new lands (back then, this was science fiction; now, it's Dubai).
Despite being a profitable venture, Captain van Toch is clearly attached to, and cares about, "his" newts. But after his death the "Salamander Syndicate" begins to exploit them as cheap labor in order to cut expenses. Well, billions of newts are spread to all the coasts and countries, and eventually man and newt come into conflict (hence the name of the story).
A master of "black humor", Čapek makes fun of everything his plot encounters.
He starts by mocking the way sailors curse on the first page, and before he's finished on page 241, he's satirized anti-Semitism, average intelligence, big egos, black marketeering, businessmen, capitalism, Christianity, collectors, communism, drunks, sailors, drunken sailors, economics, trends and theories in education, exploitation, fads, fashion, footnotes (at one point the book actually footnotes itself! Sheer comic genius!), greed, hypocrisy, government hypocrisy, intellectuals, journalism, linguistics, maleness, femaleness, romantic love, morality, hypocritical morality, nationalism, Nazism, people who try to further their own agendas disguised as caring for others, people who act as patrons for others so they can take advantage of them, people who look for reasons to be offended, and one which salamander aficionados all share: people who don't know lizards from salamanders. He ridicules pollution, racism, religion, religious fads, scape-goating, self-aggrandizement, sophistry, speechifying, taxes, temper tantrums, war, the wealthy, women's clubs, and finally: science, scientific language, scientific research, treatises, conferences, discovery and debate, especially of the long-winded type (when the scientists are fighting about what scientific name to give the newts in the story, it reminded me of recent developments in the chronicle of the Alpine newt - Ichthyosaura alpestris, formerly Triturus alpestris and Mesotriton alpestris).

The book was first published in 1936, "when it was still possible to laugh at Adolph Hitler", according to the intro. For example, the Germans decide that their newts are superior, lighter in color, walk more erect, and christen them "the Baltic newt" or the “German Super Newt” which is "indisputably superior to all the other Salamanders. With contempt they described the degenerate Mediterranean Newts, stunted both physically and morally, the savage tropical Newts, and altogether the low, barbarian, and bestial Salamanders of the other nations" (p. 193). The Germans rewrite the history and origin of the newts, attributing Germany as their original home and all other newts of the world as being genetically degenerate from their original, pure stock.

Čapek’s portrayal of the coldness and cruelty of some scientific experiments presaged the German treatment of people in concentration camps so thoroughly that it is beyond funny, but rather disturbing to read (the original was written in 1936 and the cruelty of concentration camps didn't begin until WW2). But I'm also reminded of something I read in James Petranka's classic Salamanders of the United States and Canada (p. 492): "Greater sirens maintain relatively large fat reserves in their tails and are able to withstand prolonged periods without food...One siren maintained without food at about 22º died 26 months later after losing 45% of its initial body weight. A second died after 5.2 years after losing 86% of its initial weight." That sounds like it could have come right out of an Auschwitz medical log. Ugh. Some things never change.
One of his jabs at fads is that the newts speak a simplified version of whatever language they are taught, sort of like LOL-speak, but then it becomes a fashion for everyone to speak like that. LOL speak for newts!

Last time I read this book, I thought that people without somewhat of a familiarity with European history wouldn't get a lot of the humor, and maybe not enjoy it as much as I did. But I've learned so much about salamanders since then, that now I'm enjoying it more because there were things I didn't find so funny about the science parody before, that I get now. So now I think that if you have a good salamander science background, you'll find a lot to amuse you even if your history background is not so great.
I read one Amazon review where someone criticized the copious use of footnotes. That reader did not understand that these footnotes are all a parody of scientific discourse.
Some cultural jokes will be understood by being familiar with The German Migration of Peoples (Völkerwanderung), and a Faustian Bargain. I had to look up this word, also: dolichocephalic (p. 194), which means "long headed".
But even if you don't get all the cultural jokes, there is still plenty to entertain, and you can just resolve to become more acquainted with European history, and then read it again someday. It's well worth rereading and I’m glad I did for this review.

I won't say how the war ends, but wouldn't it be nice to think that somewhere the newts would win out over big business? That nature might have a chance against human(notvery)kind? The book is both a goal AND a fun journey. He makes his points but he had tons of fun along the way. You can tell Čapek really enjoyed writing it, and you will enjoy reading it.
This bare outline doesn't begin to do the depth and humor of the book justice. If you like sarcasm, black humor, social commentary, and newts, settle down with this book and have a good read.

You can read the book free online here or here.

I find the second “” translation more readable. If you’re going to sneakily print it out at work, remember, it’s about 240+ pages.

But if you prefer a 3D copy with a real cover that you can sniff and lick, it is available on Amazon (with a variety of covers) starting at $2.27. RUR is available as a Dover Thrift edition for $2 and on Amazon starting at $3.72. It's another worthy read and one I did in about an hour, it's only 58 pages.

(1) Pronounced “Chop-ek”, according to the intro.
(2) Čapek has a thorough grounding in the natural history of newts; his newt science fiction does not leave the well-educated reader snickering over his ignorance. Even his fanciful description of scheuchzeri's mating habits is a parody of actual salamander mating behaviors that I found humorously entertaining.
And he has the good sense to know how cute newts are.

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