Home > 1930, 20th Century, Book Club, Classics, Czech Literature, Dystopian Fiction, Highly Recommended, Science Fiction, Čapek Karel > War With the Newts by Karel Čapek – still relevant, alas.

War With the Newts by Karel Čapek – still relevant, alas.

December 26, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

War With the Newts by Karel Čapek (1936) French title: La guerre des salamandres. Translated by Claudia Ancelot.

War With the Newts by Karel Čapek is our Book Club choice for December.

Published in 1936, it’s a dystopian fiction where Čapek imagines a world where a huge population of newts grows and lives under the sea. It sounds bucolic said like this but War of the Newts is more a humorous but serious declaration against the pitfall of wild capitalism.

When the book opens, Captain Jan Van Toch is a sailor who does trade in the Indonesian waters and he barely makes ends meet. One day, he hears about Devil’s Island, a place that the locals avoid because it’s populated by devils. Van Toch goes there anyway and discovers that the so-called devils are actually salamanders. Better than that, if he trades knives with them, they can fish oysters and help him find pearls. Van Toch likes the newts and strikes an agreement with them: he provides knives to help them fend off their enemies, they fish oysters for his pearl business. Van Toch is like a character by André Malraux, an adventurer.

Van Toch goes into business with G.H. Bondy, a tradesman who accepts this weird pearls/salamander business. Van Toch handles the newts on the field, GH Bondy manages the pearl trade back in Europe. It’s mutually beneficial.

Progressively, the territory of the newts expands, humans discover that they can learn how to speak and how to use tools. Scientists study the salamanders and name the species Andrias Scheuchzeri. (Knowing Čapek, I wonder if there’s a pun under that name.) The salamander become underwater workers. They are not paid but fed and armed. They work well in hydraulic jobs and their workforce is much appreciated.

The first book closes with Van Toch’s death. As soon as he dies, his legacy is trampled by triumphant capitalism, ie GH Bondy. The newts are not profitable enough, there are too many pearls on the market and their price dropped. And a new company is created to develop the salamander business as docile and efficient underwater workers.

The second book shows the expansion of the salamander phenomenon. They reproduce quickly, their predator is at bay and the collaboration with the humans means that they work against knives, steel, food. They colonize the waters of the whole globe.

A whole economy develops on this trade. Through articles from newspapers, Čapek shows us how the salamander issue impacts a lot of aspects of human life. They are shows with performing salamanders and scientific studies. All aspects of their presence beside humans raises questions: do they have a soul? Is it slavery? Are they citizen? Can they be enrolled as soldiers? Which language should they learn? What rights should they have?

A lady organizes the first schools for newts in Nice. Unions say nothing because protesting against the development of the salamanders would jeopardize the human jobs linked to the businesses  with the newt colonies.

Čapek imagines the reaction of several countries and I laughed out loud.

France is the first country to impose strict social laws in favor of the newts. When the newts start stealing apples in orchards in Normandy, the farmers protest, resulting in the destruction of a police station and a tax office. Demonstrations were organized in favor of the newts and their outcome was a strike in Brest and Marseille and confrontations with the police. So, my dear foreign readers, if you hear anything about events like this in contemporary France, don’t worry for us, it’s part of our folklore.

The reaction of the British government to the newts settling in their fishing waters was priceless. Any likeness to recent events is fortuitous and demonstrates how much Čapek knew of the various European mindsets.

Intellectuals try to warn the world, especially the Houllebecq look-alike prophet of doom and gloom, Mr. Wolf Meynert.

There is a lot to say about War With the Newts and it’s still so relevant that it’s almost scary.

Reading this today, you could interpret the path taken with the salamanders as a metaphor of our destruction of nature, the inexorable climate change and how we fail to change of direction because the economy prevails.

Čapek shows how small-scale operations with a balanced relationship –ie the partnership between Van Toch and the newts – become destructive when mass capitalism and politics come to the playing field.

The minutes of the board meeting of G.H. Bondy’s company are edifying. Anything to cut the costs and increase the profitability. Anything to distribute dividends to the shareholders. Anything to have the biggest colony of newts and be stronger than the neighboring country. The 21st century is not even original.

And then there’s the underlying question of slavery, racism and colonization.

And then you have Mr Povondra, the one with a conscience.

He used to be G.H. Bondy’s doorman and he made the decision to open the door to Van Toch and was thus instrumental to their meeting. This tiny decision had huge consequences.

Like the scientists who worked on the atomic bomb, like the inventor of the internet or the early programmer of Facebook, Mr Povondra wonders if he made the right decision that day. His action has results he couldn’t have predicted but he’s still regretful.

War With the Newts wasn’t always an easy read because of its form.

The first part is rather straightforward, the second part is a patchwork of articles and speeches coming from Mr Povondra’s collection of all things salamanders. The last part was the consequence of the two firsts. I struggled at the beginning of part II but it was worth continuing.

I am in awe of Čapek’s ability to dissect human patterns, denounce capitalism through this fable.

He shows a very astute analysis of the economy, its mechanism and of politics and geopolitics. He lives in a dangerous world at the time. The 1930s. The aftermath of WWI, the Great Depression and the rise of dictatorships. The War of the Newts is a warning against human propensity to choose a path of destruction, ignore relevant warnings and renounce to profits for the common wellbeing.

We’re doomed, guys.

As often, I’ve played the book cover game and downloaded covers in different languages: French, Czech, English, Russian, German, Spanish and Swedish. They are very different and don’t give the same idea of the book. In the French and Swedish editions, the salamanders seem harmless. The Swedish newts look like Casimir, from a children show. The German cover transforms the newts into Goldorak and on the Spanish one, the newts are really hostile. The others are more symbolic. Now, you need to read the book to see which publishers are closest to the book. 🙂

  1. December 26, 2020 at 8:59 am

    “I am in awe of Čapek’s ability to dissect human patterns, denounce capitalism through this fable.” I am too!
    I haven’t read any Capek for ages and I am in awe of your ability to find books like this. Capek was one of the masters of early Science Fiction (don’t say that, you’ll frighten the horses) and it is my loss that my reading these last twenty years has taken me down other paths.


    • December 26, 2020 at 11:49 am

      Have you read it?

      I’ve seen on the cover of my War with the Newts edition that Čapek coined the word “robot” and that it comes from the Czech word to say “worker”.


      • December 27, 2020 at 1:58 am

        I was hoping to find a copy on my shelves. No luck, and I haven’t caught up with my son who actually remembers what he reads to ask him. The Capek work that I know I have read is The Absolute at Large.


        • December 27, 2020 at 2:46 pm

          It might reappear later!
          I’m curious about The Absolute at Large and I’d like to read it bundled with Charge d’âme by Romain Gary. In this novel, Gary imagine a world where the souls of dead people are captured to be transformed into energy. It seems to be between Capek and Gogol. Given Gary’s origins and culture I’m sure he knew the two books.


  2. December 26, 2020 at 12:26 pm

    So this was published in 1935, four years before the war, when the Czech republic was independent but fascism was on the rise. Do you think this critique of capitalism was pro Communist? Perhaps as a protection against Germany?


    • December 26, 2020 at 12:54 pm

      I don’t think so. I think Čapek was against all extreme regimes and profoundly pro-democracy.


      • December 27, 2020 at 1:31 pm

        He sounds like an interesting find:)


  3. December 26, 2020 at 1:21 pm

    This sounds a little bit like Max Brooks’s World War Z with the geopolitical humor about the different countries; I need to try Capek.


    • December 26, 2020 at 4:07 pm

      I’ve never heard of World War Z but I really liked Capek’s sense of humor.


  4. December 26, 2020 at 3:00 pm

    What an interesting imagination Karel Čapek had. I like the way you’ve shown that and how he caught the responses of various countries. It’s frightening to see how ingrained attitudes can be. This should really be included in lists when books like Orwell’s ‘1984’ are recommended.


    • December 26, 2020 at 4:10 pm

      It should be on more lists but it’s not as easy to read as 1984 because the construction of the book is trickier. It included minutes of a company meeting, weird scenes with a starlette, articles from newspapers and scientific magazines.
      But it’s really well done and the seriousness of the ideas is wrapped into a lot of humor.

      Liked by 1 person

      • December 27, 2020 at 3:16 am

        I seem to remember liking the construction but I can see that it might put some people off. And the humor does help…

        Liked by 1 person

  5. December 26, 2020 at 5:10 pm

    It’s such a great book, isn’t it? And so astonishingly insightful. I’ve been thinking about rereading it for Kaggsy & Simon’s year club this spring.

    In English I like the Osiers translation from Catbird Press, whose cover you didn’t show, but maybe that was because it was such a dull cover…The Germans see the book as rather mod, don’t they?


    • December 26, 2020 at 7:12 pm

      It is, yes. It’s amazing how insightful it is and how much I could see an analogy with climate change when I read about the newts.

      And yes, I picked the most colorful and weird covers. I wonder if the Germans mixed this book with R.U.R, the one about robots. The German cover makes me think of a Japanese TV show Choudenshi Bioman from the 1980s


  6. December 26, 2020 at 6:34 pm

    It’s a great book and terrifyingly relevant, yes. And we *are* all doomed I think…. ;(


    • December 26, 2020 at 7:16 pm

      It’s scary to read it and find it so relevant. And disheartening too.
      Another way to look at it is to realize that what we live isn’t as new as we think, so we have to let go and take care of ourselves.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. December 28, 2020 at 11:58 pm

    Oh, I so want to read this book – it is frightening, isn’t it, how relevant it all still is? I find that when reading other writers from the 1930s as well…


    • December 29, 2020 at 9:03 pm

      I think you’d like it and I’d love to read your thoughts about it. (Great book to read along with teenagers, provided that they read, of course…)

      Liked by 1 person

  1. January 3, 2021 at 5:21 pm
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