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War with the Newts by Karel Čapek

War with the Newts (1937)

by Karel Čapek

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,523437,835 (4.07)123
Originally written in 1936, two years before Capek's death and three years before the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, War with the Newts is considered by many to be Capek's greatest book. Working in the "fantastic" satiric tradition of Wells, Orwell, and Vonnegut, Capek chronicles the discovery of a colony of highly intelligent giant salamanders off the coast of an Indonesian island. Capek sardonically details all the reactions of the civilized world - from horror to skepticism, from intellectual fascination to mercantile opportunism - and the ultimate destruction from which it (and the newts) might not escape.… (more)
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English (33)  Dutch (2)  Norwegian (1)  Swedish (1)  Finnish (1)  Spanish (1)  Hebrew (1)  French (1)  Danish (1)  German (1)  All languages (43)
Showing 1-5 of 33 (next | show all)
Having run out of Sumo DVDs, and whilst awaiting the beginning of baseball season, we've been watching Wooster and Jeeves videos. One of Wooster's buddies is fanatical about newts. When I discovered that Harold Bloom considered this book to be part of the western literature canon (I discovered this thanks, I suppose, to more prodding/nagging by Becca), of course I had to read it.

The concept was rather good, and the beginning promising. I must admit, however, I got tired of the book toward the end. Hence, only 3*s.

An irascible old sea captain discovers a cove in the south pacific inhabited by rather large newts. They walk around on their hind legs and are 3–4 feet tall. He discovers that he can train them to dive for pearls for him. This works fine, until they have extracted all the pearls from his cove. So, he seeks a partner who will build him a boat to transport newts to other places where they can get pearls for him. After a while, people discover that they can get the newts to do all manner of things along the coast, fix harbor infra structure, shore up fortifications and so forth. Almost free labor who will work tirelessly for a little food and some shiny tools. Well, the newts propagate to the extent that they pretty much outnumber people by more than an order of magnitude. So, they, the newts that is, need more harbor space, which leads them to begin blowing up and flooding the land near the seas. Well, it all gets complicated....

This book has lots of observations on the human condition, our frailties, the frailties of the national characters of nations during the 1930s, the frailties of business people whose only interest is short-term profits, and so forth.
( )
  lgpiper | Jun 21, 2019 |
Glad I found a copy of this. Simply wonderful, only eclipsed by modern works that have the luxury of a longer page count. ( )
  sarcher | Jan 30, 2019 |

It’s war! Humans versus newts. And odds favor a newt victory since a number of key factors work in their favor: newts can continue fighting even after losing two-thirds of their internal organs; newts are absolute realists and make highly disciplined soldiers since they are not bogged down by things like fantasy or humor or lofty ideas; the current population of these creatures standing four foot high when walking upright on their hind legs has reached over twenty billion, outnumbering humans ten to one. Twenty billion! That’s a lot of well-armed, fighting newts.

Such is the crisis in Karel Čapek's 1936 novel, War With the Newts, a highly entertaining satirical dystopian alternate history that's, in turn, fascinating, humorous, a tad unsettling and occasionally downright creepy. The Czech author has addressed similar themes in his most famous work, RUR (Rossum's Universal Robots), a play where the word robot appeared in writing for the first time. In the play its humans versus robots, in the novel Karel Čapek traces the history leading up to the newt wars, beginning with the discovery by one Captain van Toch of these giant salamanders living underwater off the coast of a remote Indonesian island.

The captain’s dealings with these amiable creatures starts off innocently enough: the newts trade pearls for knives whereby they can better open oysters, their main diet. Ever the opportunist, van Toch rekons these newts can be his pearl hunters all across Indonesia. Sharks have always kept the newt population in check. So, to increase their numbers, the captain arms the newts with anti-shark guns. More newts, more pearls, more money. And as soon as the good Captain recognized these tireless workers so eager to please are especially fit for underwater construction and could effectively be put to use for human engineering projects, he shares his vision with a leader in the world of industry and commerce.

Bingo. It's not long before the formation of The Salamander Syndicate, owning and trading millions of newts across the globe. Newts boost the world economy – utilizing a newt workforce, nations claim more ownership of the oceans and seas. Meanwhile, after subjecting newts to extensive tests and experiments, scientists write articles explaining now that newts have expanded their habitat, the coiled-up spring of evolution has been provided an opportunity to unwind.

Philosophical issues arise: Does a newt have a soul? The answers are mixed. A Colonel Britton discoveres newts have no sense of honor or patriotism; Arturo Toscanini observes newts have no music; Mae West can plainly see newts are devoid of sex appeal, thus, on all three counts, newts have no souls. On the other side, a spiritual teacher from India, Sandrabharata Nath, is quoted as remarking: “They have a soul like every other creature and every plant as does everything that lives.”

Let the Newts receive a proper education! Many are taught French, literature, rhetoric, etiquette, mathematics and the history of art. Some of the salamanders can even quote Cicero. One journalist observes newt comprehension of the newspapers is at the level of the average human. Prompts us to wonder about those men and women below average. "Human intelligence" begins to sound like an oxymoron.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other pro-salamander organizations attempt to insure newts are not treated cruelly or inhumanely not only in their capacity as workers to advance human economy but in all areas of their salamander lives. These goodhearted people must fight ongoing battles on many fronts since the gullible newts willingly play the part of lackey and toady (such irony in this amphibian term) for their brutal human overseers.

Big theological question – could newts be baptized? The Catholic Church says no since newts are not Adam’s descendants. However, Protestant churches distribute many millions of copies of Holy Scripture for the newts on waterproof paper and a few eccentric Christian sects attempt to baptize newts. One philosopher even goes so far as to compose a special religious system for newts including faith in the Great Salamander. Where's Christopher Hitchens when you need him most?

Years pass. Millions upon millions of newts are everywhere. Young newts want to make football, fascism, sexual perversion and other things human part of their everyday lives. Old newts advocate sticking to traditional newt ways. Well, sort of - those old newts don't mind reading the daily news in human newspapers.

Comrade newts! Bourgeois civilization has enslaved your souls. Newts are the new working class; newt labor should be prohibited. So shouts pesky liberal agitators. But governments and commercial interests quickly point out how newts have special skills underwater and that the overall standard of living for humans have risen dramatically. Equally important (actually, more important) profits have risen. If no working salamanders then twenty percent of all factories worldwide would be forced to shut down precipitating economic disaster.

Do you detect the entire face of planet earth has been radically altered? Karel Čapek masterfully lampoons and satirizes how we humans can so readily sacrifice decency, compassion and respect for the balance of nature in our quest for self-aggrandizement through the worship of nationalism, economic power and military might. And to think this novel was written on the cusp of the rise of Hitler and Nazism.

Karel Čapek (1890 -1938) from Czechoslovakia, novelist, playwright, essayist, literary critic, photographer, art critic. Much influenced by William James and American pragmatism, he unceasingly campaigned for free expression and against all forms of fascism and communism. ( )
  Glenn_Russell | Nov 13, 2018 |
War With the Newts by Czech author Karel Capek is both a satire based on mankind’s trait to exploit any new found life-form that we find and also, due to his concern over what was happening in Europe at that time, a rather obvious dig at the rise of National Socialism that was occurring in Germany. Originally published in 1936 this work of science fiction concerns the discovery of a race of intelligent sea-dwelling lizards on a remote Pacific Island.

The book starts with a much lighter tone than that which develops later. A sea captain stumbles upon these creatures on an island near Sumatra and quickly learns to utilize them for collecting pearls. Eventually this operation is expanded and then the lizards are put to work on many different projects. As the men control and direct these lizards, teaching them to use tools and even weapons, they in turn are watching and learning. All too soon these enslaved creatures are being mistreated and the tension between humans and lizards builds until fights break out and then escalates into a full scale war.

War With The Newts deftly shows how our human habit of exploitation leads to bigotry, greed, cruelty and ultimately to our own downfall. Although written over eighty years ago, it is very sad and very obvious that not much has changed in today’s world. The author manages to skewer religion, capitalism, fascism and even social reform during the course of this short book, making War With the Newts a fascinating and unusual read. ( )
2 vote DeltaQueen50 | Dec 13, 2016 |
As with all good science fiction, this brilliant book from 1936 by Czech author Karel Čapek holds a mirror up to mankind while telling the story. In this one, evolved, three-foot-high newts have been discovered in the South Pacific, and man quickly begins exploiting them. Čapek is brilliant at following this idea through to its logical conclusions in a world where the strong have always preyed on the weak, and ‘humanity’ is at odds with capitalism and often foreign to those in power. He also has a very creative and post-modern way of telling the story, through different characters, newspaper articles, scientific reports, and occasional inner dialogue. Chapters 6 and 7, ‘The Yacht on the Lagoon’, with a few young people vacationing who spontaneously want to use the newts in a movie, are fabulous, as is the report from Hamburg scientist in the second book dispassionately outlining his cruel experiments.

1936 was an extraordinary time for this novel, with Hitler’s rise to power and Czechoslovakia increasingly at risk. Čapek makes his views about Germany known so well that he would be named “public enemy number two” by the Gestapo, and Nazi intimidation of the Nobel committee may have denied him the prize he was nominated seven times for, which I find tragic. However, this is not a book about Germany, it’s a book about man, and Čapek also points out unsavory things about other nations, such as the lynching of blacks in America, and the extreme cultural arrogance of England. Despite how serious all of that is, the book does have a certain lightness to it, and Čapek has a deft touch.

I also really appreciated the outstanding introduction in this edition by Ivan Klíma, which explains Čapek’s views on life beyond the book, and which frame it perfectly. In an age of great turmoil and political movements, Čapek was leery of generalizations and simplifications, and leery of those seeking power. Most of all, he was acutely aware of the paradox within those wanting to lead mankind and professing great love for it, but at the same not being tolerant or even loving individual men. This is best revealed in the quote Klíma includes from another work by Čapek’s, ‘The Factory of the Absolute’:

“In The Factory of the Absolute everyone believes he has found the true god and that he will save others by bringing them his god and inculcating his own faith and concept of love. People are filled with messianic idealism, but their ideals are contradictory and lead to disputes; the disputes grow into wars. While professing lofty intentions, they overlook other people and justify their own intolerance. At the end of the book one of the heroes confesses ‘A person might think that another belief is the wrong belief, but he mustn’t think that the fellow who holds it is bad, or common, or stupid.’ And later, ‘You know, the greater the thing somebody believes in, the more passionately he despises those who don’t believe in it. But the greatest belief would be to believe in people…Everybody’s just great at thinking about mankind, but about one single person – no. I’ll kill you, but I’ll save mankind…It’ll be a bad world until people believe in people…’

Indeed. And consider these passage in light of Donald Trump’s successful bid for the presidency:
“Čapek doubted that anything posed a greater threat to mankind than uncontrolled Faustian desire. A man who feels equal to the creator labors under the delusion that he can and should make the world conform to his own idea. In reality, he simply ceases to perceive its complexity, disturbs one of its subtle, imperceptible structures, and triggers calamity.”

“A culturally leveled intelligentsia ceases to fulfill certain obligations on which most higher values depend…If culture breaks down, the ‘average’ person – the simple, ordinary man, the farmer, the factory worker, the tradesman, with his normal thoughts and moral code – will not be heard, and will go off in search of something that is far beneath him, a barbaric and violent element … Destroy the hierarchical supremacy of the spirit, and you pave the way for the return of savagery. The abdication of the intelligentsia will make barbarians of us all.”

A couple of other quotes:
On recurrence:
“Perhaps our history has already been played too, and we shift our figures with the same moves to the same checks as in times long past.”

On human progress and machines, actually from Čapek’s article, ‘Rule by Machines’:
“Isn’t our admiration for machines, that is, for mechanical civilization, such that it suppresses our awareness of man’s truly creative abilities? We all believe in human progress; but we seem predisposed to imagine this progress in the form of gasoline engines, electricity, and other technical contrivances…We have made machines, not people, our standard for the human order…There is no conflict between man and machine…But it’s another matter entirely when we ask ourselves whether the organization and perfection of human beings is proceeding as surely as the organization and perfection of machines…If we wish to talk about progress, let’s not rave about the number of cars or telephones but point instead to the value that we and our civilization attach to human life.” ( )
3 vote gbill | Nov 21, 2016 |
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» Add other authors (55 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Čapek, KarelAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Frisk, ErikTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gannett, LewisIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Glaserová, EliškaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Klima, IvanIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mader, JuliusTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mas, RamonForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mirabet, NúriaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Silvanto, ReinoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ticha, HansIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Weatherall, MarieTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Weatherall, RobertTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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If you were to look for the little island of Tanah Masa on the map, you would find it right on the equator, a bit to the west of Sumatra; but if on board the ship Kandong Bandoeng you were to ask Captain J. van Toch what is this Tanah Masa before which he has just dropped anchor, he would curse for a while, and then tell you that it is the dirtiest hole in all the Straits, even worse that Tanah Bala and at least as damned as Pini, or Banjak; that the only---I beg your pardon---man who lives there---not counting, of course, those lousy Bataks---is a drunken commercial agent, a cross between a Cuban and a Portuguese, and a bigger thief, heathen, and swine than a pure Cuban and a pure white man put together; and if there is anything damned in this world, then it is the damned life on this damned Tanah Masa, sir.
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