Translated from Czech by M and R Weatherall
This is quite a familiar plotline. Mankind discovers new species, exploits it while severely underestimating its capabilities. Suddenly mankind finds itself outnumbered and outmanoeuvred. Game over …
So far, so good. Just another doomsday projection resulting from mankind’s arrogance and shortsightedness,then? Not quite because the sting is in the obliqueness of the telling. The novel is divided into three books: the first and third containing the actual story arc. In the first section the new species, Andrias Scheuchzeri, is discovered somewhere in the Pacific by Captain J Toch, who swiftly recognises their suitability for pearl harvesting. Overfarming is the natural outcome and when the pearls become hard to find, Toch makes a pitch to the industrialist, Gussie H Bondy, suggesting the newts be deployed on a range of hydroengineering projects around the world. The Salamander Syndicate is established for this purpose. The third book details the conflict that results between the newts and mankind, sparked primarily because the newts, now outnumbering humans by hundreds of thousands (if not millions) to one require more living space. As they can only survive in shallow sea water, they resort to blowing up land mass and enlarging the area available to them ….
How did it come to this? Clues appear in early scientific papers analysing the learning capabilities of the newts and their amazing fecundity. Both are allowed to progress without risk analysis or check, because, of course, this inferior species will never pose a threat to mankind. The second book shows the development of the newts from exploited subspecies to potential world conquerors, though it is told somewhat in retrospect from the scrapbook entries of one Mr Povondra – the doorman, who, on a whim, granted Captain Toch access to Gussi H Bondy.
The rest, as they say is history, or rather a future drowning in a sea of
newts regrets and denial. Poor Mr Povondra, resident of land-locked Prague still believes he and his country men to be safe, even when the newts have destroyed the landmass of continental Europe to such an extent that Dresden is no more!
Čapek takes a swipe at everyone and everything in this 1936 satire. At first with humour at the vanity of Hollywood starlets and the appetite for make believe horror (aka King Kong 1933) , then with admirable intellect as he pillories academia with mock scientific papers. The insatiable greed of heavy industry for profit is an obvious target. Finally the politics of the day – it’s not hard to identify Nazi Lebensraum propaganda in the conflict between mankind and the newts. But there’s also a chilling prescience. At one point mankind agree to let the newts have China if only they leave the rest of the world alone. Roll forward 2 years from publication date and we arrive at the Munich agreement in which the Allies handed over the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany. Well, appeasement worked just as well in the real world as it does in Čapek’s novel. No wonder War with the Newts was banned by the Nazis. Science fiction it may be, but its concerns are firmly rooted in the issues of its day – some, if not all of which, unfortunately remain relevant today.
War with the Newts is a novel, therefore, admired by me, though sadly not loved. I found the many pages of invented academese wearing and, in parts, I resorted to skimming.
I’ve read this for the 1936 Club too and enjoyed it a lot. Yes, Capek is very knowledgeable about a lot of things and takes a great satirical swipe at them. As a former academic, perhaps I enjoyed the academic papers more than you – and of course the papers, and the various national traits and institutions, which I think he often gets spot-on (about the British, the French and so on).
Read this and wondered what a newt related coincidence!
Augustus “Gussie” Fink-Nottle first appears in Right-ho, Jeeves in 1934 (per Wikipedia) and the industrialist here is Gussi H Bondy!
Any chance of Capek having read Wodehouse?
I enjoyed this more than you when I read it, I think – but it *is* awfully chilling in places.
It sounds heavy going…
I had always assumed the title was metaphorical! Clearly not… Sorry that it didn’t work for you, but thanks for adding it to the club.
Hmm, I have it on my TBR, but sorry to see it didn’t completely work for you
I quite like this–read it a few times already–& am thinking about squeezing it in yet this week. We’ll see. But there’s a newer translation than the Weatherall’s by Ewald Oser which I prefer. (Catbird Press)
I love stumbling across a really “out-there” book. This one meets the definition to a “t”. You get the prize for the most original pick of the 1936 Club! Great review!