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Karel Čapek

Karel Čapek (1890-1938) is known as a science fiction author who wrote before science fiction became widely recognized as a separate genre. He was a Czech writer and the author of War with the Newts and R.U.R.


". . . a great writer of the past who speaks to the present in a voice brilliant, clear, honorable, blackly funny, and prophetic."

– Kurt Vonnegut

"It is time to read Capek again for his insouciant laughter, and the anguish of human blindness that lies beneath it."

– Arthur Miller

"Superb SF, shrewd satire, and a technical tour de force."

– Entertainment Weekly

"Čapek had in mind the totalitarian deluge that [in 1938] began to engulf Europe. But his satire aims, above all, at human blindness and greed. The enemy is always within, he reminds us."

– New York Times Book Review

"A bracing parody of totalitarianism and technological overkill, one of the most amusing and provocative books in its genre."

– Philadelphia Inquirer

"A sendup of multiple early-20th centuryisms. . . . [Čapek's] cosmopolitanism vents itself impishly in War with the Newts, whose text bristles with puns, pseudo-erudite footnotes, and international foolery."

– Washington Post Book World


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War With the Newts

Lydia Millet On Karel Capek’s War With the Newts


I first encountered the bulgy-eyed protagonists of Karel Capek’s monumentally great -- poignant! and hilarious! -- 1937 novel War With the Newts when I was in my early 20s, living in L.A. and working as a peon copy editor at Hustler Magazine. Andrias Scheuchzeri, a species of newt first discovered (according to the book) by a ship captain in the waters off a remote island near Sumatra, was a salamander capable of walking upright -- as well as synthesizing information and acquiring human language. His creator, Czech writer Karel Capek, is best known as the man who made up the word robot. A brilliant humorist and allegorist, Capek was also a journalist in post-World War I Prague, a contemporary of the more inwardly turned Franz Kafka, and one of the most imaginative early writers of science fiction. He was a pragmatic and actively political writer. “Literature that does not care about reality or about what is really happening to the world,” he wrote, “literature that is reluctant to react as strongly as word and thought allow, is not for me.” War With the Newts was his last novel; the best English translation is by M. and R. Weatherall, published in 1937.

Capek’s newts are naïve, childlike specimens when first encountered in the wild and put to work diving for pearls by the greedy, paternalistic Captain van Toch. Standing about the height of a “ten-year-old boy,” the newts have hands, tails, and a habit of smacking their lips; when they first meet humans they stand up on their hind legs in shallow water, wriggle, and emit a clicking, hissing bark that sounds like ts, ts. Pitifully eager to please, they’re subjugated, tortured and often massacred with impunity; their trusting natures make them the perfect victims.

Packed into filthy cargo ships to die of starvation or infection, bred for servitude, sent off to zoos and work farms and animal research labs, the newts gradually learn to distrust. But before they rebel, many are assimilated into human culture. With innocent admiration for the accomplishments of their human captors, they adopt bourgeois manners and customs; study etiquette; and enroll in universities, sometimes becoming respected scholars who -- because they live mostly in water -- have to deliver their lectures from bathtubs. Young female newts, who attend a finishing school wearing modest makeshift skirts donated by decency-loving matrons, come to worship their do-gooder headmistress as a saint. And one tourist couple vacationing in the Galápagos encounters an earnest and studious newt who goes nowhere without his well-thumbed copy of Czech for Newts, a phrasebook he has memorized. “This booklet . . . has become my dearest companion,” the newt tells the Czech couple, and proceeds to grill them on the details of Czech history. “I should like to stand myself on the sacred spot where the Czech noblemen were executed, as well as on the other famous places of cruel injustice.”

When the pearls the newts have customarily harvested for their masters become scarce, the newts themselves become the world’s most important commodity, traded by the tens of millions on the stock exchange. Different categories of newts fetch different prices: there are Leading, Heavy, Team, Odd Jobs, Trash and Spawn newts, with the Leading being intelligent, trained leaders of labor columns and the Trash being “inferior, weak, or physically defective newts.” farms all along the coastlines of the world produce newts by the hundreds of millions -- until finally the newts’ undersea civilization expands and industrializes so extensively that newts far outnumber and outgun their human counterparts. Unfortunately for the human race, newts require coastlines: only there, in the shallow water, can they live. As their population explodes, they run out of coast.

And so the “earthquakes” begin. Cataclysmic seismic activity across coastal Gulf states from Texas to Alabama are referred to as “the Earthquake in Louisiana” and soon followed by earthquakes in China and Africa. Finally European radio stations pick up a croaking voice, and Chief Salamander begins to speak: “Your explosives have done well. We thank you. Hello, you people!” He explains that the newts have run out of room and now will be forced to break down the continents to create more living space. Indifferent to human welfare, the newt civilization is driven by a mindless urge to expand.

The genius of War With the Newts lies less in its plot or its wry political wisdom than in its exceptional newt portraiture. These talking salamanders are at least half human; their anthropomorphic charm makes them unforgettable. Exaggerations of pragmatic, economic modern man, they’re as devoid of passion as they are of morality. Newts is an extraordinary novel in its humor and its casual devastation, making old-fashioned religious apocalypses look romantic, wistful, and even optimistic when compared with the soulless apocalypses we’ve come to know lately, where mass murder is an arithmetic performed in the name of, say, cheap gas for our cars or the convenience of our lifestyle. Capek’s newts are a product of European literary culture, but in many respects they look a lot like Americans.

“The mountains will be pulled down last,” says Chief Salamander. “Hello, you men. Now we shall send out light music from your gramophones.”


Editor’s Note: “Lydia Millet On Karel Capek’s War With the Newts” is adapted from a piece written for Remarkable Reads: 34 Writers and Their Adventures in Reading, edited by J. Peder Zane (Norton, 2004).

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