Capek's War with the Newts

Karel Čapek (1890-1938)Information and questions for reading War with the Newts

An introduction by Ivan Klíma again! (Klíma is one of the more prominent living Czech authors, though Milan Kundera is better known in the US - after his big hit, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which was also made into a successful film). This time, interestingly, the intro does mention the famous three centuries of repression from which the Czech literary language emerged after WWI.

Klíma also mentions Faust, I quote (p. xii): "A man who feels equal to the creator labors under the delusion that he can and should make the world confirm to his own idea." Don't miss footnote 3 on p. xvi, which further explains what Domin's American office suite signified in R.U.R.


Questions for reading War with the Newts (Valka s mloky, 1936):

  1. How can you tell this novel was written in the mid 1930s, published in 1936?
  2. In what ways is the book 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. The book includes what feels like hundreds of clever jabs at this or that nation or personality type: pick a topic or two that you notice and follow them through the story. (lynchings in America? silly British pride? German anti-Semitism? Czech small-nation coastless complexes? general human violence and racism?)
  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. Where and how does he make fun of general human foibles and flaws? What classes of people come off better than the rest, if any?
  7. How many of the famous people "quoted" in chapter 2 ("Up the Ladder of Civilization"), footnote #9, giving opinions on whether newts have souls, have you heard of? Do they sound like themselves in Čapek's ventroquilization? What is the effect of this "quotation?"
  8. What's the effect of the many and lengthy footnotes he includes? (Sort of post-modern!) If you've read much Borges, or other early masters of what people eventually labeled po-mo, how would you compare them to Čapek? In what ways, on the other hand, is Čapek a Modernist?
  9. Note Čapek's mockery of nationalism in science (pp. 109-10) - what else can you say about the way he presents science and scientists?
  10. How do people react to the newts as they begin to emerge into society?
  11. What do we actually learn about the newts, as opposed to the human beings?
  12. How does this book compare to other works of science fiction and/or social critique?
  13. Thinking of poor Andy Scheuchzer in the London Zoo with his parroting of the daily paper - do Čapek and Bulgakov agree in their opinions of the news media?
  14. How does an "all-world" piece of SF like this differ from one set on another planet - even a close one like Mars or the Moon?
  15. Do you see any common traits emerging among the SF works we've read that are set in the author's present or the very near future? (What landmarks does Čapek use to suggest how much time has passed, and where does this anchor us in a book that's otherwise all over the globe?)
  16. What's the effect of the final section? How could you compare it to Bulgakov's rude gesture with the "frosty Deus ex machina?

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? Could 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."