Sometimes I buy a book just because it’s pretty. It can be something I already read and might never re-read, sometimes it’s a new one for me, often it waits years for its turn. Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts I read almost immediately, and I’m quite certain I’ll be revisiting. If not for a full re-read, then at least to browse the illustrations, as this is one of the best-illustrated books I own, not only because the pictures look pretty, but also because they are fully integrated within the story.
I was additionally motivated when I noticed Jeroen from A Sky of Books and Movies started reviewing Čapek, first R.U.R. and then War with the Newts itself. His review is highly recommended as it puts the book in the context of its times and similar genre fiction. I’ll try to add a bit to that, but I’ll concentrate on my edition, one that is sadly only available to Polish and German-reading audiences.
Author: Karel Čapek
Illustrator: Hans Ticha
Title: War with the Newts / Válka s Mloky in the original Czech, also translated as Salamander Wars, but the Polish title of this edition is Inwazja jaszczurów which literally means Invasion of the Lizards
Series: Świeżym okiem (With a fresh eye…) – yay, there will be more of these beautiful editions, next one – Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
It was published by Dwie Siostry (Two Sisters) a great publishing house specializing in books for younger readers. Some of their best stuff is available in English, and among their Polish publications are Joan Aiken’s short stories, published in Poland just once before, in mid 1980-ties. I had a talk with them during a pre-pandemic book fair but sadly it seems they did not listen to my advice to publish The Wolves of Willoughby Chase as well. Anyway, if you have anyone between the ages of 4 and 10 in your family, consider getting them Maps:
Ok, back to the newts… the novel starts on far-away islands, some time between world wars, when a certain sea captain, named van Toch, tries to find pearls for his Dutch employers. Not an easy task, as pearls are currently in fashion and considered good investment, all the traditional sources are quickly drying up. On Tana Masa island, in the vicinity of Sumatra, he learns that a part of the island is considered taboo by the indigenous population, and gets the idea it might be rich in pearls. With the indifference and confidence of an European he ignores the local customs and orders his men to explore. And there are pearls all right, but also strange, lizard-like, speech-capable creatures of near human intelligence.
Creatures that were nearly hunted to extinction by the sharks, as they never learned how to make tools. Even more defenceless than early humans, they lived short and sad lives – until our brave captain van Toch came up with the idea of supplying them with knives, for defence against sharks and to get him the much coveted pearls… from this point, things escalate quickly.
By the way, Polish readers have some extra fun reading Czech literature, and a sense of familiarity. It’s a language that translates great into Polish, and a culture that shares a lot with ours. I’m not sure how well it all looks in English. Anyway, parts about van Toch (real name Vantoch, a son of shopkeeper from small Czech town) back in Czechia and Czechs’ petite bourgeoisie attitudes… wonderful. I’d vote for my city to secede from Poland and join Czechia, any day.
What is less fun, but very realistic, are subtle hints of anti-Semitism, as something obvious to Eastern Europeans of that era, not yet bloody, not in Czechia, but sinister. One of many difficult topics touched by Čapek, not as visible as colonialism, fascism, capitalism or nationalism… lots of isms are covered, and the humanity is painted in dark colours. How do we get to all that from a paradise island? The usual way, with human greed and fear and bloodlust being the main motivators. Newts are used, quite ruthlessly, in all kinds of industries, on larger and larger scale, and also in the armies, by everybody, until things get out of control and… well, check it out, it’s worth it. This book is serious, but funny, and a bit different than current SF. It aged well.
Čapek plays with national stereotypes, parodies popular press, uses illustrations, parts of the book look like a comic. Serious issues are deliberated upon by the world’s wise heads, like newts’ rights and souls (starting with the question of whether they even have them), the superiority of German newts over newts of lesser nations and their impact on the situation of human workers. Some people discuss things with the quickly-learning newts, some dissect them for scientific reasons. Lots of terrifying fun, exploitation in all shapes and forms. Newts are treated as the lesser, subservient Other, ridiculous and undeserving of fair treatment. Ignored is the fact that they are thinking, feeling beings. And when we start with ridicule, genocide might follow. As it did, a few years later, in Europe, something Čapek predicted, but did not experience, having died in 1938, three months after his country had been betrayed and left for Hitler to devour.
At some point reader might realize most of the things done to these lizards were at various points done to our fellow humans. Well, we might deserve being replaced by another species.
How does it all end?
Pretty predictable? I will not spoil you with details, the conclusion is a bit rushed, but not as obvious as I suggest here. Do read the book!