Karel Čapek, War with the Newts
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,
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
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:
- First of all, it is a translation. Sometimes this allows nice effects, such as
the phrase "The Newt Age," which for an American reader today has to resonate
with "New Age" in an amusing way. Other times, it means that the linguistic play
is hard to convey.
- In particular, in the first part of the 20th century the Czech language was
in a peculiar position. Czech had a flourishing literature and a true Renaissance
in the 14th century, with several important Humanist writers and work in a wide
variety of literary genres. After the wars of the Reformation and the decisive
defeat of Protestant forces at the Battle of the White Mountain (1620), however,
the Roman Catholic Hapsburgs who ruled Bohemia suppressed the language and
Prague ceased to be the capital of the empire. For many years after that,
culturally ambitious Czechs would write, or compose classical music, or what
have you in German, the dominant language of the empire. Though a Czech revival
began in the 18th century, censorship and cultural pressures to assimilate
continued to hinder natural development of the Czech literary language.
So, once the new state of Czechoslovakia began to enjoy a different set of
literary priorities in 1918, writers were in a difficult position: the high-status
literary language inherited from Bohemia's most famous literary achievements was
old-fashioned (comparable to the feeling of Shakespeare's English, or the
King James Bible), without an easy and natural transition or relationship
to the everyday language spoken by the people.
Thus Czech literature in the 20th century and even now has the ability to bring
in sharply contrasting stylistic levels to get stylistic effects in ways that
are hard to imagine in contemporary American English. (A scholar might point out
that Modernism undid the tradition of complex writing that still flourished in the
early 20th century in Britain and other Anglophone countries.) With regard to
the humorous use of diverse linguistic styles, Čapek might be compared to P. G.
Wodehouse. It's very hard to convey in translation the humorous effect of an
old-fashioned, ponderous style used for inappropriately informal topics and
interlaced with startling colloquial expressions. Captain Vantoch's difficulty
in remembering the right word may embody a kind of diglossia: he has been abroad
too long to remember every word in Czech, where other Czech readers may have been
too used to using German for abstract discussions.
- Because the original made such difficult demands on the translator, the book
gets off to a slow start. It becomes much funnier in later chapters. I put in
little scraps of paper to mark every funny spot; after a while they got so
thick that I stopped trying.
General questions for discussion:
- How can you tell this novel was written in the mid 1930s, published in 1936?
- 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?
- 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?)
- 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?
- 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,
- 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.
- Where and how does he make fun of general human foibles and flaws? Do any
classes of people come off better than the rest?
- 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?"
- 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
(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
- 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).
- What can this book tell us about our own cultural and historical moment?
- How does this book compare to other works of science fiction and/or social
More specialized questions:
- 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
- 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?
- 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:
- Online, Čapek's 1924
essay, "Why I Am Not a Communist."
- The famous play R.U.R.(Rossum's Universal Robots), 1920
- The Macropulos Affair, 1922
- The Absolute at Large, 1922
- Conversations with T. G. Masaryk, 1928-35
- The White Disease, 1937 - an anti-Nazi play
- The Mother, 1938
- Tales from Two Pockets
- Nine Fairy Tales
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
500 College Ave.
Swarthmore, PA 19081-1390