War With The Newts By Karel Čapek

Reading War With The Newts it is incredibly difficult to believe it was written in 1936. Almost everybody that reads the book in the modern era reflects on certain elements sounding like they could refer to Nazi Germany and WW2. And in some ways they clearly did and picked up on the sense of war looming. But of course this was written before that and the author Karel Čapek has a number of other considerations weighing on his mind.

There are so many different angles to this book that at times it does become confused at points and the determination to stick to one theme or concept causes another to look skewed or crushed. That does not make this book bad, far from it, but it does leave a lot of questions regarding the authors opinions and thought processes open.

Book by Karel Capek

It briefly covers topics such as what women should look like, how they should act both in private and also in Hollywood and how their ideas are responded to all whilst questioning if a man should be thinking of women in such ways and what others will think of them for having emotions. Whilst this seems like a relative step in the right direction for something written over 80 years ago it also reinforces gender stereotypes of the time by declaring that women know nothing of politics or economics. At one point one of the characters, simply referred to as “mother” throughout, Mrs Povondra remarks in regards to the papers mentioning a woman had been murdered “if a man murders a woman, they hardly ever catch him”. This statement, that Mr Povondra brushes off with no comment, reflects a society then and now as to how woman are often regarded and treated. In doing all of this, with the odd occasional comment a seed is planted in the readers mind but with the author not leaping out to make it more of an obvious point nothing more happens as it is not enough to shock the reader into self-reflection.

In fact throughout the entire book the only time that the female newt is mentioned is in relation to how newts reproduce. It is not presented though as to how the newts are gendered or how many of the newt population have one particular gender assigned to them and if they are part of any of the working groups mentioned or if the female newts simply exist and produce eggs. What happens to the females when they get too old? A lot is discussed with regards to the history of the newts and how they came to be an uprising but there is never any mention of women being part of that… how typical.

But of course the uprising is an anti-imperialist stance relating to how the world views their colonies and the people within them. There are clear signs of it being a call against globalisation and how if a group is oppressed they will use all the skills they have been given to fight back. The newts, being used as a metaphor for colonies, become trained and skilled creatures that have the ability to he;p but also to hinder; the newts were trained to fight and should the big world war that is mentioned in the book come about they would fight in it but that would give them the skills and strength to fight for their own independence one day. The concept of the plot still applies today but of course it could do with a lot of development.

The author could not have done this development, perhaps had he lived for a number of years after the publication of the book instead of dying just two years later he could have provided an updated foreword or concluding paragraph, as his own fears show through the end of the book. There is a sign that he feels everything he does that is good will turn out to be bad and through the concluding shock of Mr Povondra for seeing a newt for the first time it gives the feeling that however much you read about something or come to terms with it that the reality of it happening is rather different. The ending of the book is not a strong one and the author knows that by including a chapter of him arguing with himself about how the book should conclude.

This final chapter suggests that humans will be their own downfall and that the course of nature will prevail before resetting the balance of the world once again to restart the whole thing. But there will be no records of everything that happened before only hints of science, which the book has hinted at throughout can be skewed, and that the human race will then make the same mistake again.

It is an interesting concept and there are certainly large parts of it that I understand and broadly agree with but there are also holes in the logic that result in a bad depiction of the people that the author is trying to represent. Some of the claims feel like they fit in the modern day world and that they will be around for many years to come but they could have been done better. Well worth the read but be prepared to feel the need to choose one metaphor brought along in the book and stick with it (you might need to re-read it several times to take different lines and get alternative viewpoints).

On the structure of the book it is split up into three books. The first is a history of the events leading up to the events in book three. Book two is a collection of pieces of ‘news’ and ‘articles’ on the newts and their purposes; a bit like a manual to creating a piece of machinery and how best to care for it without it becoming a financial hindrance. Book two is very much about considering if the newts are things or creatures with a soul and what rights they do or do not deserve and about striking that ‘balance’ as to not threaten those using the newts whilst attempting to keep the newts ‘in their place’. I found the second book, even though I used to be a journalist and loved to read scientific style articles, to be an incredible drag and was relieved, after 80 pages, to move to the third book. If you do go to read this book the third part is well worth reading, even though it does mean grinding through the second part first.

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