Monday, 27 February 2012

Review: The War with the Newts

The War with the Newts by Karel Čapek (1936)

A Czech sea captain discovers a strange race of amphibians about the size of a child living in a remote lagoon in the Dutch East Indies.  Though these giant newts are intelligent, they are trapped in the lagoon and their numbers kept small by the constant attacks by the local sharks.  The captain trades the newts knives and harpoons in exchange for pearl oysters and within a year he has the backing of a major financier to trade more goods for pearls.  Partly out of fondness of the newts, the captain starts transporting the newts to other islands until they spread throughout the Indies and the Pacific.  Soon the existence of the newts is learned by the world.  At first they're seen as curiosities, then as useful animals capable of manual labour for underwater work, then as an alien race that could be the source of valuable work and as a market for the world's goods.  Unfortunately, the relationship between man and newt begins and continues to be tense.  Within twenty years of their discovery, the newts, which now number in the tens of billions, declare war on mankind and demand the right to flood all the lands of Earth to give the newts more living room.

Better known of his play RUR, Karl Čapek's The War with the Newts is his darkly satirical take on the world of the 1930s.  His targets are so disperse, so universal that the story lacks any solid through-line except for the general progress of the Age of the Newts.  Instead, it's more a collection of episodes, news accounts, scientific papers and footnotes.  Some parts are broadly comic, some are savage commentary and some are thinly disguised polemic about the ills of the modern world.  In the process, Čapek takes his shots at the British, Americans, Germans, Communists, Fascists, Capitalists, the French, colonialism, mercantilism, racialism, consumerism, religion, education, rationalism and a host of others.

The newts are neatly drawn by Čapek.  They are sympathetic, but also very alien and frightening.  That's partly because the humans are utterly oblivious to how they are giving the newts the means to destroy mankind and partly because the newts are not the sort of lofty noble savages that a lesser writer would have employed.  At first, the newts are simple and friendly.  Then it's discovered that their tastes are that of a vulgar reader of evening newspapers.  Then that they are a race without art, music, poetry, philosophy or anything else beyond the pragmatic and the productive.

The satire can often be too heavy and some passages are a bit too detailed for their purpose, but as a satire, it does it's job very well.

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