Karel Čapek, War with the Newts

Information and Questions for reading

small black and white picture of Karel Capek

You already know Karel Čapek (January 9, 1890-December 25, 1938),
because he (or, he said, actually his brother Josef, a painter and writer)
invented the word "robot," which comes from the Czech word "robota" 'hard labor, toil'.

cover of first edition of R.U.R.

Čapek was born in Malé Svatoňovice, Bohemia, in Austria-Hungary, now in the Czech Republic. He studied philosophy, aesthetics and the history of art in Prague (one of his seminar papers was on Jamesian pragmatism) and continued to live there for many years, using his home to host meetings of Czech patriots and important cultural figures. The last two decades of his life overlapped with the first Republic of Czechoslovakia (1918-1938). Čapek refused to flee after Czechoslovakia was taken over by Germany in October of 1938, even though he was reputedly on a black list as "public enemy number 2" for the Nazis. He died of pneumonia on December 25, 1938, aged 58. Had he not died then, he probably would have wound up like his brother Josef (who died c. 1945 in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp).

Čapek studied wrote in a wide variety of genres and styles - detective stories, novels, fairy tales, plays, political memoirs, newspaper columns, and other works. Like Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, he used elements of science fiction to comment on human nature and society. His combination of political and aesthetic concerns were an inspiration for later Czech writers such as Václav Havel, and his writings influenced writers all over Eastern and Central Europe. He is considered an early practitioner of science fiction, but he has reached readers of all kinds of literary tastes.

We will read War with the Newts (originally published in 1936 as Válka s mloky, first published in English translation by Ewald Osers in 1937). It is also sometimes translated as "War with the Salamanders," and you'll notice that both of these words figure in the translation.

Keep in mind while reading:

General questions for discussion:

  1. How can you tell this novel was written in the mid 1930s, published in 1936?
  2. Given that the translation doesn't convey some of the humor, when do you begin to sense that the book is supposed to be funny?
  3. Given some of the things that happened since 1936, which jokes now feel unfunny or even upsetting? (How much does humor have the potential to upset or offend someone who isn't in on the joke? How much does it reflect power relationships in society or unsavory cultural stereotypes?)
  4. I might ask of any of the books on this list: who is it okay to make fun of in this book, and why? Who is it not okay to make fun of, and what does that combination tell you about the time and place where the book was written?
  5. At which point do the newts cease to differ from humans and start to behave just like them? (cf., the generation gap between Old Newts and New Newts, etc.)
  6. Čapek's humor eventually becomes broadly international. If you make a list of all the countries and peoples he makes fun of, who is left out? Who shows up in a way that surprises you? (Note the way he makes fun of the Czechs - with their vanity of a small nation.
  7. Where and how does he make fun of general human foibles and flaws? Do any classes of people come off better than the rest?
  8. How many of the famous people "quoted" in chapter 2 ("Up the Ladder of Civilization"), footnote #9, giving opinions on whether newts have sould, have you heard of? Do they sound like themselves in Čapek's ventroquilization? What is the effect of this "quotation?"
  9. In what ways does this book address Czech history and culture? Where can you tell that it's written by a Czech, and how does it treat Czech characters or cultural aspirations?
    (Especially in the brief section on the pamphlet "Czech for Newts," and the reported encounter in the Galápagos with a Czech-speaking specimen. Boleslav Jablonský (1813-1881) was one of the most popular Czech 19th-century poets, by the way.)
  10. How does the frequent citation from Povondra's collection of newspaper clippings (which, we learn, is not complete or dependable) compare to the use of documentary material - or pseudo-documentary material - by other 20th-century authors? I think of the wonderful Yugoslav Danilo Kiš (half Montenegrin, half Jewish, writing in Serbian), as one good example. Other elements of this novel resonate with works by Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986).
  11. What can this book tell us about our own cultural and historical moment?
  12. How does this book compare to other works of science fiction and/or social critique?

More specialized questions:

  1. For the paleontologists, biologists, or veterinarians among you: how good is Čapek's biology? Is this kind of rapid evolution plausible? Would a newt or salamander have an adequate vocal apparatus to speak, even in the distorted way Čapek describes?
  2. For anyone who can read the languages left untranslated in the "citations" from Povondra's collection of clippings, what are the rest of us missing?
  3. An essay topic from popular culture: compare this book to Tom Lehrer's song, "National Brotherhood Week."

Other works by Čapek, many available in English translation:

If you liked this book, you might enjoy Jaroslav Hašek's novel The Good Soldier Švejk (unfinished when Hašek died in 1923, but well worth reading), a bawdy and blasphemous tale about a cheerful idiot - one might call it "comic Kafka."

In the category of speculative fiction that interweaves real people and places with invention and/or elements of science fiction, War with the Newts could be compared interestingly with Michael Chabon's Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007).

One might well ask, "If Čapek's name is spelled with that pretty variant of C, why do we write the word 'Czech' written with a 'cz'?" Because English picked up this early spelling with the digraph "cz" rather than the more efficient Č that came into use later. Polish still uses "cz" to spell approximately the same sound English renders with "ch." About pronouncing Czech: every word is stressed on the first syllable, and what looks like a Spanish stress mark or a French accent aigüe is a length mark, making that syllable longer than the others.

Thanks to the Karel Čapek Website (English version) for images I have borrowed for this page. Thanks to Dr. Lenka Pánková (who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh) for suggesting the wonderful novel War with the Newts. Some information and evaluations taken from Robert B. Pynsent and S. I. Kanikova, eds., Reader's Encyclopedia of Eastern European Literature HarperCollins, 1993) and Wikipedia. Any errors of fact or interpretation are probably my own.

For questions about the reading group, meetings, books, etc., please contact Pamela Zurer.

For questions about this web page or the authors, please contact Sibelan Forrester,

Modern Languages and Literatures
Swarthmore College
500 College Ave.
Swarthmore, PA 19081-1390