Posts Tagged ‘RUR’

Karel Čapek: War With The Newts

April 28, 2021

     I came back to this well over forty years after first discovering it, and it had me realising just how much a small country – that was Czechoslovakia – has punched above its weight in literary terms in the twentieth century. As well as Čapek’s RUR which I wrote about here, there was Franz Kafka (although I know he wrote in German) and the incomparable Jaroslav Hašek in the inter-war years, and then during the communist era the country produced writers such as Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Ivan Klima and the wonderful Josef Skvorecky.

War With The Newts is a curious piece, a mixture of many genres, science fiction, satire, mock documentary and a lot more besides. Initially it has a Conradian feel to it, partly because of the Java setting and the sea-captain who starts the whole thing off by discovering an intelligent race of newts who can learn, and who boost his wealth by fishing for pearls for him, in exchange for things they want. The captain is a well-developed character, who tells a humorous and rambling tale about how he has taught, trained and armed the newts as he develops trade with them; he eventually makes a deal with a rich businessman and we are on the road to disaster…

The story is interspersed with all manner of pseudo-scientific documentation, and news reports, board meetings and accounts of the greed of businessmen who ultimately end up selling the entire human race and its future in the quest for profit, in a version of capitalism that is as crazy as anything currently going on.

It becomes evident that the relationship between human businessmen and the newts is a replication of the slave trade of past centuries, as a craze develops for building new continents and land-masses to make money. Ultimately we move into similar territory to that which the author also explores in RUR: are the newts intelligent, human almost? Do they have rights? How ethical a species are we in the ways we treat them?

At this point the story does move quite definitively into satirical territory; it is evident that despite the profits to be made, humans are creating a problem for the future. Eventually there is confrontation: the ever-expanding newt population needs more shallow sea in which to live and this is directly in conflict with what humans want, so war ensues. It helps to remember that Čapek was writing at the time when Hitler was demanding more lebensraum for the German people…

Of course, as profit is to be made from selling machinery and weaponry to the newts, businessmen continue to do so, and the newts rapidly defeat human attempts at limiting and containing them, and begin systematically to demolish entire countries and continents to create their living space. And even when there are peace negotiations between the two sides, it transpires that human beings represent the newts.

In the end, sadly, Čapek’s message is one that echoes today: human beings really aren’t a very intelligent species. There is no hope where there is greed, capitalism and profits for the few. Evidence of human stupidity abounds…

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