Posts Tagged ‘satire’

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…

A tour of my library – concluded

August 14, 2019

There are quite a few ‘oddments’ shelves and sections where the books that don’t fit tidily into a category, or are too large or small to have a space on the appropriate shelf, are ranged.

It’s hard to write about the oddments collectively because they are oddments, objects that have caught my fancy over the years and have been added to my collection. One particular curiosity is Adolf in Blunderland, a satire from the 1930s in the style of Alice in Wonderland, with illustrations after the manner of Tenniel, mocking the German leader and his cronies. I bought it donkey’s years ago when still at school, with my hard-earner pocket money, because the concept amused me so much…

I have a number of outsize books that won’t fit on the appropriate shelves. Several of these are atlases, as well as books about maps and the history of maps, a subject which fascinates me. The largest is a colossal tome, an atlas published just after the First World War, with beautiful maps of all the new countries that came into being as a result of that conflict. I got it for a song at a bookfair many years ago. Its size dwarfs even the large Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World… There’s also a reproduction of parts of Joan Blaeu’s Atlas Maior of the 1660s, which is absolutely wonderful, and which I can spend hours staring at, mentally comparing how people saw the world then and how they see it now. Obviously these books tie in with my interests in travel and travel writing, and are often open alongside as I read about other people’s journeys. I like to follow these journeys on a map, which is why I often bemoan poor or absent maps in travel writing.

Our collection of cookery books lives in the hall, which is about as close as they can get to the kitchen. I’m one of those people who hates following recipes, so cookery books serve as inspiration rather than as step-by-step guides, although I do pay more careful attention to bread recipes when I’m trying out something new in that line…

I love my library, although sometimes I do feel a little oppressed by the sheer size of it, and the realisation that I do need to do some serious culling and focus on those books I really treasure and am going to want to re-read. I cannot imagine living in a house without books, and on the very rare occasion I’ve found myself in one, I have felt distinctly uncomfortable…

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