Fun fact: Karel Čapek coined the word ‘robot’ from the Czech word robota meaning slave labour. He also wrote the utterly brilliant ‘War with the Newts,’ a laugh out loud satire I’m ashamed to admit I’d never heard of until it started to pop up on aspirational reading lists.
Čapek (pronounced Chapek) begins his story in a boat by a tiny island near Sumatra. The captain is in search of pearls; he loathes his work and he can’t see any romance in the exotic setting: ‘Please try and understand this. In Europe there might still be something left to discover; but here – people only come here to sniff out something they could eat, or rather not even eat, to find something to buy and sell.‘ Exploitation is in the air, if only captain van Toch could find something worth exploiting.
Actually, despite his cynical agreement with the domineering colonist agenda, van Toch soon reveals a more adventurous and romantic side. Initially, he is doubtful when the islanders tell him of ‘demons’ living off the island, ‘Listen, demons don’t exist. And if they did exist, they would look like Europeans.‘ Later however he becomes enthralled by the creatures, taking on a protective, almost paternal, role towards them; as it happens, he does receive a king’s ransom in pearls for his troubles.
Given the title, I don’t think it’s giving anything away to say that van Toch is not the only human who ends up interacting with the newts. From Hollywood to the international scientific community, from stock-trading businessmen to, eventually, anyone living near the water, the whole world becomes caught up in the coming conflict. The newts are almost like people, they can walk on their hind legs, they can learn and they can talk. Like so many creatures in science-fiction horror, they are a mirror to humanity and it is never entirely clear how much they should be considered vulnerable innocents and how much quick and intelligent antagonists. The book’s, complex nuanced imagining of their society and interactions is fascinating and it’s not hard to see the presentation of the newts as a biting satire on race and colonisation. Čapek doesn’t limit his attack though, and the novel is equally brutal in its exploration of industry, education, gender and sexuality and nationalism (remember, it was published in Czechoslovakia in 1936).
According to Wikipedia, Čapek was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature seven times. He died in 1938 and is shamefully unknown to English readers. With several editions out there, I’m confident this book will start will continue to work its magic on new readers. As for me, the rest of Čapek’s work are now all on the wish-list and I have a new favourite science fiction satire to love and re-read. Pale demons, pearl diving and overpopulation have never been so darkly comic, but you’ll have to read the book yourself to see quite how he manages it.
Note: the last paragraph of this post has been amended due to my confusion over different editions and translations (see comments below). There are three English translations that I know of:
- 1985 translation by Ewald Osers (pub. Catbird Press)
- 1937 translation by M. & R. Weatherall (pub. Penguin Classics)
- 2015 translation by David Wylie (pub. 6e classics). This is the version I read, and I’m keen to explore the other options. I really loved this book and am definitely going to re-read it in the future, so building up a private library seems in order!