War with the Newts
War with the Newts also translated as War with the Salamanders, is a 1936 satirical science fiction
Science fiction
Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with imaginary but more or less plausible content such as future settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, aliens, and paranormal abilities...

 story by Czech
Czech Republic
The Czech Republic is a landlocked country in Central Europe. The country is bordered by Poland to the northeast, Slovakia to the east, Austria to the south, and Germany to the west and northwest....

 author Karel Čapek
Karel Capek
Karel Čapek was Czech writer of the 20th century.-Biography:Born in 1890 in the Bohemian mountain village of Malé Svatoňovice to an overbearing, emotional mother and a distant yet adored father, Čapek was the youngest of three siblings...

. It concerns the discovery in the Pacific of a sea-dwelling race, an intelligent breed of newt
A newt is an aquatic amphibian of the family Salamandridae, although not all aquatic salamanders are considered newts. Newts are classified in the subfamily Pleurodelinae of the family Salamandridae, and are found in North America, Europe and Asia...

s, who are initially enslaved and exploited. They acquire human knowledge and rebel, leading to a global war for supremacy. There are obvious similarities to Čapek's earlier Rossum's Universal Robots
R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots)
R.U.R. is a 1920 science fiction play in the Czech language by Karel Čapek. R.U.R. stands for Rossum's Universal Robots, an English phrase used as the subtitle in the Czech original. It premiered in 1921 and introduced the word "robot" to the English language and to science fiction as a whole.The...

, but also some original themes.

Plot summary

Only the last four of the book's 26 chapters deal with the eponymous war. The rest of the book is concerned with the discovery of the Newts, their exploitation and evolution, and growing tensions between humans and the Newts in the lead-up to the war.

The book does not have any single protagonist
A protagonist is the main character of a literary, theatrical, cinematic, or musical narrative, around whom the events of the narrative's plot revolve and with whom the audience is intended to most identify...

, but instead looks at the development of the Newts from a broad societal perspective. At various points the narrator
A narrator is, within any story , the fictional or non-fictional, personal or impersonal entity who tells the story to the audience. When the narrator is also a character within the story, he or she is sometimes known as the viewpoint character. The narrator is one of three entities responsible for...

's register
Register (sociolinguistics)
In linguistics, a register is a variety of a language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting. For example, when speaking in a formal setting an English speaker may be more likely to adhere more closely to prescribed grammar, pronounce words ending in -ing with a velar nasal...

 seems to slip into that of a journalist
A journalist collects and distributes news and other information. A journalist's work is referred to as journalism.A reporter is a type of journalist who researchs, writes, and reports on information to be presented in mass media, including print media , electronic media , and digital media A...

, historian
A historian is a person who studies and writes about the past and is regarded as an authority on it. Historians are concerned with the continuous, methodical narrative and research of past events as relating to the human race; as well as the study of all history in time. If the individual is...

 or anthropologist. The three most central characters are Captain J. van Toch, the seaman who discovers the Newts; Mr Gussie H. Bondy, the industrialist who leads the development of the Newt industry; and Mr Povondra, Mr Bondy's doorman. They all reoccur throughout the book, but none can be said to drive the narrative in any significant way. All three are Czech.

The novel is divided into three sections or 'books'.

Book One – Andrias Scheuchzeri

The first section recounts Captain van Toch's discovery of the Newts on a small island near Sumatra
Sumatra is an island in western Indonesia, westernmost of the Sunda Islands. It is the largest island entirely in Indonesia , and the sixth largest island in the world at 473,481 km2 with a population of 50,365,538...

, their initial exploitation in the service of pearl farming, the beginning of their spread around the oceans of the world, and the development of their speech and absorption of human culture. The section closes with the founding of The Salamander Syndicate, an ambitious plan developed by Mr Bondy to redirect Newt resources away from the declining pearl industry and into larger hydroengineering projects. Though this is the close of the narrative development of this section, there is – oddly enough as it is positioned at the end of the section, but in the middle of the novel – a further appendix entitled 'The Sex Life of the Newts'. This examines the Newts' sex
In biology, sex is a process of combining and mixing genetic traits, often resulting in the specialization of organisms into a male or female variety . Sexual reproduction involves combining specialized cells to form offspring that inherit traits from both parents...

uality and reproductive processes in a pastiche
A pastiche is a literary or other artistic genre or technique that is a "hodge-podge" or imitation. The word is also a linguistic term used to describe an early stage in the development of a pidgin language.-Hodge-podge:...

 of academese.

The tone of the first section is generally light-hearted satire, in contrast to the darker tone of later parts of the story. Čapek targets a range of human foibles, from the superficiality of Hollywood starlets, to the arrogance of then-prevalent European attitudes towards non-white races. He also skewers the self-assuredness of science; scientists are repeatedly seen underestimating the capabilities of the Newts and falsely assessing other related issues, always in full confidence of the validity of their claims.

Book Two – Up the Ladder of Civilisation

The second section concerns the development of the Newts from the founding of The Salamander Syndicate to the outbreak of the first hostilities between Newts and humans. It contains only three chapters: one long one – by far the longest in the novel – bookended by two short ones. In the first chapter Mr. Povondra begins collecting newspaper clippings concerning the Newts. The long middle chapter then takes the form of a historical essay written at some unspecified time in the future. The essay cites Mr. Povondra's clippings as its main source of historical evidence, and includes a number of footnotes and quotations from his collection. The third chapter returns to the Povondra household a number of years after the events of the first chapter and introduces an early Newt-human conflict.

Book Three – War with the Newts

The final section reverts to the same form as the first section, but with a darker tone. It relates a series of skirmishes between Newts and humans, eventually resulting in the outbreak of war when the Newts declare their need to destroy portions of the world's continents in order to create new coastlines and so expand their living space
was one of the major political ideas of Adolf Hitler, and an important component of Nazi ideology. It served as the motivation for the expansionist policies of Nazi Germany, aiming to provide extra space for the growth of the German population, for a Greater Germany...

. Čapek's satirical targets here are mainly nationalism
Nationalism is a political ideology that involves a strong identification of a group of individuals with a political entity defined in national terms, i.e. a nation. In the 'modernist' image of the nation, it is nationalism that creates national identity. There are various definitions for what...

 (the British
British people
The British are citizens of the United Kingdom, of the Isle of Man, any of the Channel Islands, or of any of the British overseas territories, and their descendants...

, French
French people
The French are a nation that share a common French culture and speak the French language as a mother tongue. Historically, the French population are descended from peoples of Celtic, Latin and Germanic origin, and are today a mixture of several ethnic groups...

 and Germans
The Germans are a Germanic ethnic group native to Central Europe. The English term Germans has referred to the German-speaking population of the Holy Roman Empire since the Late Middle Ages....

 are all portrayed as irredeemably stubborn and nationalistic), German racial theories
Scientific racism
Scientific racism is the use of scientific techniques and hypotheses to sanction the belief in racial superiority or racism.This is not the same as using scientific findings and the scientific method to investigate differences among the humans and argue that there are races...

 (see below), and the perceived inefficacy of international diplomacy. In the penultimate chapter, the tone becomes didactic: 'We are all responsible for it', declares Čapek's mouthpiece, Mr. Povondra's adult son.

The last chapter, entitled 'The Author Talks to Himself' takes a metafictional turn. With earth's landmass one-fifth destroyed and humanity offering little resistance, the chapter cuts away from the action to a conversation between two personas of the author, called the Author and the Writer. Between them they map out the long-term history of the Newts: the Newts will all but destroy the Earth's landmass, leaving only a tiny clump of humanity to work for them in their factories. Eventually they will form separate countries and destroy themselves by committing the same follies as humanity; humans will then inherit what remains of the earth; new continents will arise, and "America" will be dimly remembered as an Atlantis
Atlantis is a legendary island first mentioned in Plato's dialogues Timaeus and Critias, written about 360 BC....

-like mythical land.


By the early 1930’s, the author's country of Czechoslovakia
Czechoslovakia or Czecho-Slovakia was a sovereign state in Central Europe which existed from October 1918, when it declared its independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, until 1992...

 was in a precarious political situation. Čapek became concerned by the developments of National Socialism
Nazism, the common short form name of National Socialism was the ideology and practice of the Nazi Party and of Nazi Germany...

 in Germany and the rise of the Soviet states to the east. He began writing his Apocryphal Tales, short allegorical pieces that picked up on the anxiety felt by many Czechoslovakians at the time. These provided the impetus for War with the Newts, which was written over four months in the summer of 1935.

He describes the initial thought of the novel as, “you mustn’t think that the evolution that gave rise to our form of life was the only evolutionary process on the planet.” On August 27, 1935, Čapek wrote, “Today I completed the last chapter of my utopian novel. The protagonist of this chapter is nationalism. The content is quite simple: the destruction of the world and its people. It is a disgusting chapter, based solely on logic. Yet it had to end this way. What destroys us will not be a cosmic catastrophe but mere reasons of state, economics, prestige, etc.”

As satire and social commentary

The book is a dark satire
Satire is primarily a literary genre or form, although in practice it can also be found in the graphic and performing arts. In satire, vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement...

, poking fun extensively at the contemporary European politics, including colonialism
Colonialism is the establishment, maintenance, acquisition and expansion of colonies in one territory by people from another territory. It is a process whereby the metropole claims sovereignty over the colony and the social structure, government, and economics of the colony are changed by...

, fascism
Fascism is a radical authoritarian nationalist political ideology. Fascists seek to rejuvenate their nation based on commitment to the national community as an organic entity, in which individuals are bound together in national identity by suprapersonal connections of ancestry, culture, and blood...

 and Nazism
Nazism, the common short form name of National Socialism was the ideology and practice of the Nazi Party and of Nazi Germany...

, segregation
Racial segregation
Racial segregation is the separation of humans into racial groups in daily life. It may apply to activities such as eating in a restaurant, drinking from a water fountain, using a public toilet, attending school, going to the movies, or in the rental or purchase of a home...

 in America, and the arms race
Arms race
The term arms race, in its original usage, describes a competition between two or more parties for the best armed forces. Each party competes to produce larger numbers of weapons, greater armies, or superior military technology in a technological escalation...

. A notable satirical point is the mentioned research of a German scientist who has determined that the German Newts are actually a superior Nordic race, and that as such they have a right to expand their living space at the expense of the inferior breeds of Newts.

The author's opinion of the United States' social problems also appears very pessimistic, as whenever that country is mentioned as dealing with a crisis, American mobs "lynch
Lynching is an extrajudicial execution carried out by a mob, often by hanging, but also by burning at the stake or shooting, in order to punish an alleged transgressor, or to intimidate, control, or otherwise manipulate a population of people. It is related to other means of social control that...

 negroes" as scapegoats. Sometimes the Newts are shown in the same manner as the blacks, as when a white woman claims to have been raped by one of them. In spite of the physical impossibility of the act, people believe her and carry out Newt lynchings.

One passage, depicting the European nations willing to hand over China to the Newts as long as they are themselves spared and overriding the Chinese's desperate protests, seems a premonition of the Munich Agreement
Munich Agreement
The Munich Pact was an agreement permitting the Nazi German annexation of Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland. The Sudetenland were areas along Czech borders, mainly inhabited by ethnic Germans. The agreement was negotiated at a conference held in Munich, Germany, among the major powers of Europe without...

, a few years after the book was written - in which the writer's own country suffered a similar fate in a futile effort to appease the Nazis.


War with the Newts has been translated into English three times. Reviewers describe the original 1936 Allen & Unwin
Allen & Unwin
Allen & Unwin, formerly a major British publishing house, is now an independent book publisher and distributor based in Australia. The Australian directors have been the sole owners of the Allen & Unwin name since effecting a management buy out at the time the UK parent company, Unwin Hyman, was...

 translation by the husband-and-wife team of Robert and Marie Weatherall as competent but uninspired. The language of the era is preserved, but some of Čapek’s literary techniques are obscured. The 1985 translation, by the recently deceased Czech Ewald Osers
Ewald Osers
Ewald Osers , was a Czech translator born in Austria-Hungary. He was one of the most outstanding translators of Central European literature into English.-Career:...

, is regarded by many reviewers as superior, capturing the crispness and strong metaphors of the original. This translation was supported by the UNESCO Collection of Representative Works
UNESCO Collection of Representative Works
The UNESCO Collection of Representative Works was a UNESCO translation project that was active for about 57 years, from 1948 to about 2005. The projects purpose was to translate masterpieces of world literature, primarily from a lesser known language into a more international language such as...

. Veteran Kafka translator David Wyllie completed another translation, released by Melville House
Melville House Publishing
Melville House Publishing is an independent publisher of literary fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. The company was founded in 2001 by the husband and wife team of Dennis Loy Johnson and Valerie Merians in Hoboken, New Jersey, a location Johnson jokingly called "the Left Bank" of New York City...

 in 2005. Various translations in French, German, Dutch, Norwegian and Spanish have appeared since the 1960’s.


In 1981 Kenny Murray
Kenny Murray
Kenny Murray is a Scottish playwright, broadcaster and festival organiser.His first play was performed at the Everyman Theatre in 1981. He organises Liverpools Africa Oyé 'World Music' festival.-External links:...

 and Ken Campbell
Ken Campbell
Ken Campbell was an English writer, actor, director and comedian.Ken Campbell may also refer to:* Ken Campbell , Canadian evangelist* Ken Campbell , former Scotland international goalkeeper...

 adapted the story into a play, which was performed at the Everyman Theatre
Everyman Theatre
The Everyman Theatre stands at the north end of Hope Street, Liverpool, Merseyside, England. Established in 1964 in a former cinema, it encouraged local talent and played a part in the development of new artistes and writers. The theatre was rebuilt between 1975 and 1977, and was closed again for...

 in Liverpool. A 2003 production, based on the English translation by Ewald Osers, was adapted for the stage by E.B. Solomon and performed at the Kennedy Center's Prelude Festival and later at The Catholic University of America and the Mead Theatre Lab. In 2010, an adaptation by Jason Loewith and Justin D.M. Palmer (in collaboration with puppet designer Michael Montenegro) was performed at Next Theatre in Evanston, Illinois.

In 2005 a BBC Radio adaption was produced, starring Dermot Crowley
Dermot Crowley
Dermot Crowley is a Irish stage, film and television actor.-Career:Crowley's stage work has included a leading role in an Olivier Award winning production of Conor McPherson's The Weir, which played in the United Kingdom, Ireland and the United States in the late 1990s...

, Sally Hawkins
Sally Hawkins
Sally Cecilia Hawkins is an English actress. Her performance as Poppy in the 2008 film Happy-Go-Lucky won her several international awards, including the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy...

, Henry Goodman
Henry Goodman
Henry Goodman is a British theatre actor. He trained at RADA in London alongside Jonathan Pryce.In 1988, he played George Green's brother-in-law Cyril in London's Burning. He played character roles in episodes of the popular UK police drama The Bill...

, Geoffrey Beevers
Geoffrey Beevers
Geoffrey Beevers is a British actor who has appeared in many different television roles.Beevers has worked extensively at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond upon Thames, both as an actor ; and as an adaptor/director of George Eliot's novel Adam Bede , for which he won a Time Out Award, and Balzac's...

, Tina Gray, and Adrian Scarborough
Adrian Scarborough
Adrian Philip Scarborough is an English character actor and won an Olivier award for best actor in a supporting role in 2011.Scarborough was born in Melton Mowbray, and trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, winning the Chesterton Award for Best Actor.In 1993, he was nominated for the Ian...

. A film adaptation by the Polish director Agnieszka Holland
Agnieszka Holland
Agnieszka Holland is a Polish film and TV director and screenwriter. Best recognized for her highly political contributions to Polish cinema, Holland is one of Poland's most prominent filmmakers.-Personal life:...

 and Czech movie producer Tomáš Krejčí is in pre-production. The release date is currently set for 2011.

External links

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