Saturday, June 22, 2013

War with the Newts, by Karel Čapek

This review appeared first on the Dark Mountain blog, but it fits with what I usually publish here, so I thought I would post it again. Robert Wechsler, who publishes the novel as well as several other excellent volumes of Czech literature in translation, did point out in the comments that Čapek's last novel, which I thought had never made it to English, was completed by his wife and published in 1941 as The Cheat. Čapek is an author I've felt very close to recently, so I'm sure the book is worth seeking out.

The best way for this 1936 Czech novel to find its readers is simply to describe the plot.

In an isolated corner of the South Seas, a Dutch captain discovers an unknown species of newt swimming in the shallow waters of a cove which the locals have always avoided. When the captain docks on a neighboring island, the newts seem fascinated by him and strangely able to decipher his signals. The adults, who are almost four feet tall, have a build something like human children, and when on land walk on their hind legs. From the captain’s instructions, the newts bring up some pearl oysters, and the creatures even prove able to use his blade to open up the shells themselves.

Despite these skills, the newts have remained trapped in the cove for untold centuries, because they cannot swim in the open ocean and their population is kept in check by the sharks who come by regularly to devour them.

A scheme occurs to the captain, based both on greed and what seems to him like compassion. With the help of a Czech industrialist, the captain begins to transport the newts out of their cove using a tank on his boat. He spreads them to other local shallows where they can thrive unmolested. In return, the newts collect the pearls that human divers have been unable to reach.

Without frequent visits from sharks, the newts multiply at an astonishing rate (one female can release hundreds of viable eggs). Soon, predictably, they have gathered so many pearls that the bottom drops out of the market. By this point, though, it has been discovered that the newts, given tools and a bare diet, are excellent at a variety of underwater work: excavating harbors, shaping and extending coastlines, and other tasks useful for modern nation states.

Under the direction of a syndicate, huge numbers of newts are now bred and shipped around the world. Countries with coastlines begin rapidly expanding their borders, dredging and reclaiming enormous stretches of land. Fantasies of new continents rising out of the waters begin to circulate—why, after all, should so much space in the oceans and seas be wasted when it could be put to man’s use?

Troubling moral questions arise as the worker newts show increasing levels of sophistication. Scientists maintain that newt behavior is mere mechanical imitation, but soon this becomes impossible to accept. Expert opinions in the novel are constantly, drastically wrong, but no one ever admits a mistake. Instead, people simply move forward into a world where everyone now believes the opposite of what was once maintained.

Things move so quickly that the reshaping of the planet is far along before people can even begin to absorb what has happened. Is it defensible to use newts as slaves? Might there be problems with changing the shape of coastlines? Do these creatures have souls? (Čapek’s invented reply for George Bernard Shaw: “They certainly have no soul. In this they resemble man.”) Newt questions are hotly debated, and these discussions change things a little (schools for newts, more humane working conditions) but the reformers are a few people rowing chaotically on a ship in full sail intent on moving in only one direction. Anxiety only reaches a noticeable level when there are newts blanketing the coastline of every nation, with tools and underwater explosives at their disposal.

A levee breaks in New Orleans, flooding the city. There are other accidents, new inundations, and a sense of things falling mysteriously apart, but no one suspects the newts are behind the problems until they release a statement. They bear humans no ill will; they simply have needs of their own.

No need for alarm. We have no hostile intentions towards you. We only need more water, more coasts, more shallows to live in. There are many of us. There’s no longer enough room for us on your coasts. That’s why we have to dismantle your continents. We shall turn them all into bays and islands. In this way the overall length of the world’s shoreline can be increased by a factor of five. We shall construct new shallows. We cannot live in the deep ocean. We shall need your continents as fill-in material.

The newts still require humans, of course, for surplus food, metals, and other land-based raw materials (perhaps they also find us charming, like pandas, and wouldn’t want to be entirely without us). When denied these materials, the newts are quite willing to use violence.

On one level, they have learned these habits from years of human tyranny, but the novel also hints at another explanation, the same one that Leopold Kohr would advance a few decades later in The Breakdown of Nations—once a certain critical mass of power has been reached, in terms of numbers and technological sophistication, power-hungry, expansionist behavior seems to develop almost spontaneously. It is the only way that massive systems can absorb the resources they need to keep functioning.

As with lemmings and arctic grass, the planet’s ecosystem in Čapek’s world has become so simplified (newts, humans, and the things they eat and need) that it can only be moving towards a pattern of seesawing crashes. Most countries, nevertheless, keep selling the newts weapons and food. It would, after all, be an economic catastrophe not to. Water begins to spread across every continent, and the remaining humans are pushed higher and higher into the mountains...

When War with the Newts was published in 1936, it was seen as a simple parable about the Nazi threat. As a writer in Czechoslovakia, which had existed precariously as a republic for less than two decades, Čapek was acutely conscious of this danger—but if the newts began as the Nazis in his imagination, they soon sent branches in all directions to become one of literature’s great protean symbols. At different points in the novel, for example, the newts call up both the people on whom the Nazis conducted their experiments and the torturers themselves. Every time the book threatens to become schematic, it slithers away and turns into something else.

I have ruined nothing by describing the plot. The delight of the novel lies in the little eddies and swirls around the narrative—from the mating rituals of the newts, which Čapek catalogs in a few magical pages, to the pamphlet welcoming newt dominion in which I saw a few of my own ideas perceptively mocked.

War with the Newts is not all sophisticated parodies of Spengler, though; in addition to being smart, it is also quite engagingly stupid, with jokes about Hollywood starlets and various farcical footnotes. Part of this is a canny narrative strategy where the book slowly lifts itself out of the frivolity in which prosperous humanity has been drowsing—but it is also something simpler: why not make a silly joke, even in your serious book, if one occurs to you? Unlike the largely humorless, almost oppressive greatness of writers who feel that they speak for nations—like, say, Thomas Mann, a contemporary who admired this novel—Čapek’s pages are lit with a kind of elfin spirit.

As I was reading this book, I kept being reminded of Leopold Kohr, that defender of little states who grew up a few hours from the Czech border. In both writers I recognized the same unwillingness to keep delight out of their pages, even when the ideas within point again and again to an impending collapse—the shared conviction, useful for sanity in bad times, that the most natural and becoming expression of the human face is a smile.

While reading his books, I find it worth remembering that Čapek was often in immense pain—he suffered from severe inflammation of the spine from the time he was a child. In the last story of Tales from Two Pockets, Čapek’s brilliant collection of mystery stories, a narrator who suffered in this way writes:
“I’ve had such respect, such a reverence in me; everything seems more important to me now…each little thing and each human being, do you understand? Everything has enormous value. Whenever I see a sunset, I tell myself it was worth that incredible pain. And people, their work, their ordinary lives…all of it has value because of that pain. And I know it’s a terrible and unspeakable price to pay—but I truly believe that it isn’t some evil or punishment; it’s only pain, and it serves to…to give life this enormous worth—“ Mr Skrivanek stopped, not knowing how to go on.

As the country’s best-known writer, Čapek lobbied for the great powers to resist the Nazis’ demands for Czechoslovakia’s border territories. After Munich, he told a friend, “My world has died. I no longer have any reason to write.”

I can believe that, in a dark mood, he said this and meant it, but it wasn’t true. Čapek knew he would be arrested as soon as the Nazis invaded (he was, in fact, second on their list), but spent the days before the inevitable invasion trying to rescue his beloved garden from heavy autumn rains. He also worked for long stretches on his last, unfinished novel, which has never been translated into English, and spent late nights talking with friends. What else, after all, are you supposed to do?

Čapek caught a bad cold in the garden and didn’t bother to rest. A few days before the Nazis swept into his country, he died at home, spared an execution or a likely death in one of the camps—like this novel, one of literature’s small mercies.

1 comment:

Miguel said...

From the description of the plot, it sounds like a fascinating and chilling novel!