Aug 19, 2008

War With The Newts by Karel Čapek

War With the Newts (originally Válka s Mloky)

Dark, funny satire. I haven't read any other Czech fiction, so I don't know if those are typical traits of their sf and fantasy, but I'm certainly looking forward to picking up Čapek's best known work, R.U.R..

In many ways, the newts might as well be robots (a word that Čapek himself invented). For most of the novel they are perfectly content to work, without much fuss or complaint, at any job presented to them. They take all abuse and violence against them in stride, as calmly as a little green anole will drop his tail when escaping a cat. It's man's inhumanity that is brought into sharp focus in the passages describing the various brutal experiments practiced upon the salamanders, not the creatures' worth as sentient beings.

I don't know about other countries or regions, but here in the American south we are carefully taught in school about the evils of the slave trade, of the way African people were crammed into ships and allowed to rot and die all the way across the ocean, as long as the bottom line was not too affected by the loss of profit. So when Čapek tells of the newts transported in dirty, sickening water tanks (or even worse, sealed into tin barrels) after being kidnapped from their homes, the comparison is obvious. But for all that, he writes well enough that the symbolism never feels forced - if it is slightly heavy handed, I can overlook that because it still gave me a punch in the gut. When the slave traders pull off a salamander's leg or arm and just shrug and assure the narrator that it will grow back anyway, so who cares?, it got to me enough that I sat the book down for a minute.

So, there's the question that is wrestled with for most of the book - are they animals? automatons? fellow thinking beings? Do they have souls, or are they simply a resource to be sold in carefully grouped batches to the highest bidder? Is education and a decent life the best thing for them, as new members of a human society? Or is that what later leads to their victory in a war that sort of doesn't even happen?

In the end, of course, we bring our downfall on ourselves. We breed them and seed them on every coastline in the world, we arm them and train them despite agreements and warnings to the contrary, we base an entire system of worldwide advancement upon them. And then they take over our airwaves and offer to buy the very land from us, with the comment that they're going to take it either way. Čapek, speaking directly to us in the final chapter, offers some little hope, but I'm pretty sure they won out in the end.

final thought: I didn't even touch on all the references to nazis (the Master Newt Race), fascism, unchecked capitalism, environmental damage, and imperialism. In less deft hands, this would have been unreadable. I'm glad to have "discovered" Čapek.


JRSM said...

I love this book. I love how cheerful and friendly the newts remain as (SPOILERS!) they go about destroying the human world.

RUR is great, too, and manages to say as much in a shortish play as most science-fiction about robots since has managed. Great stuff.

When I read 'Newts', it seemed more about animal rights than a metaphor for slavery--not that the two aren't exclusive--but it's a rich enough book to carry multiple interpretations.

I've read a few other Capeks, and not been disappointed by any of them, though RUR and Newts are probably the best of what I've come across.

downtown guy said...

See, I feel like they were so clearly presented as more-than-animals from the first. Heck, there are whole passages where he simply, literally discusses the fact that the same captains transporting captured newts at that time would have been carrying African slaves at other times.

JRSM said...

Hmm--that does make my argument a little harder to defend. I'd forgotten thos ebits. Oh well. Still a fantastic book, though. Made me look through my shelves last night--there's a collection called 'Three Novels' of his you might enjoy too.

Doc said...

I've been toying with reading this for several years. Thanks for the review!

downtown guy said...

I look forward to seeing what you think of it!

Olman Feelyus said...

Whoah! Nice find. I need to add this to my list. Is it in print or is this going to be one more treasure to scower the used book shops for?

downtown guy said...

To tell the truth, I'm not sure. I picked it up used. But I just took a glance at Amazon and it seems to be in print as a sort of classic. Highly suggested!