Saturday, April 23, 2011

Homo Diluvii Testis et Theoscopos

Maria Sybilla Merian ( 1647 - 1717 ) Surinam Lizard 

“War with the Newts” by Karel Čapek

The German press [ ] enthusiastically stressed that it was because of its German environment that this newt had developed into a different and superior sub-species, indisputably above the level of any other salamander.  Journalists wrote with contempt of the degenerate newts of the Mediterranean, stunted both physically and mentally, of the savage newts of the tropics and of the inferior, barbaric and bestial newts of other nations.  The slogan of the day was From the Great Newt to the German Übernewt.  [ ] There was therefore not the slightest doubt that the original [ ] had had its origin in the geological past on German soil; its migration to other seas and climatic zones was something it had had to pay for with its decline and degeneration; but as soon as it found itself back on the soil of its homeland it once again became what it had been in the past: the noble northern [ ] Newt, light in color, erect in gait and long in skull.  It was only on German soil that newts could return to their pure and highest form, [ ].  This was why Germany needed new and longer shores, it needed colonies, it needed the seas of the world so that a new generation of racially pure, original German salamanders could develop in German waters.  We need new living room for our newts, wrote the German newspapers…

 “War with the Newts” 1936

It takes “heroic blindness” to miss someone like 
Karel Čapek (pronounce Chap-egg), for the Noble Prize, observes Burton Feldman in his book “The Nobel Prize, A history of Genius, Controversy and Prestige”. Rather than being blind, it seems that the Swedish committee was acute enough, but lacked the moral courage in that pre – war year of 1936 to award the Czech writer for his “War with the Newts”, a stringent attack on the rising German National Socialism. The Swedes were not alone in their weakness; all European leaders lacked the courage to face off Adolf Hitler and the scandalous Munich agreement rather than a last attempt to avert the War was an encouragement for the Nazis to implement their sick plans.

The Germans however did not miss the prophetic words of Čapek and awarded him immediately with the dubious title of “Public Enemy of the Reich, number 2”.

The parable, Čapek tells us in his book "War with the Newts", surprisingly opens on a remote island in the archipelago of Sumatra where a new species of amphibian is discovered: large, dark salamanders who are able to stand on their hind legs and who have an uncanny ability to communicate and to learn human languages. Still they are a sorry primitive people, living under water, rather docile and kind in their ways but prey to the large sharks who share their habitat. They live isolated and have remained a legend for the indigenous people who avoid their dwelling grounds protected by a strong taboo. A Czech captain with a Dutch name, J Van Toch, an adventurous, alcoholic pearl trader has decided to investigate this area and after some misfortunes is able to get in contact with the Newts. As they live under water and have easy access to a large number of unexploited oyster fields, the captain sets up a barter business exchanging knives, which can help them to open the oysters, against pearls. It is a good deal for the Newts too for they eat the content of the oysters but not the pearl and they can use the knives to protect themselves against the sharks. 

This primitive economy works well enough, until captain Van Toch, on holiday in Prague, contacts a rich businessman and proposes a business deal. The captain needs money to set up a fleet of boats with water reservoirs with which he can transport the Newts to other remote islands. With the knives to protect them, the Newts seem to grow in number quite fast. There is money to make with this cheap underwater workforce. More tasks seem to fit the capabilities of the underwater people: building underwater dams, clear harbors, raise artificial islands and so on. Other businesspeople, other nations start their Newt business and soon the whole planet is using the salamander workforce for great and greater underwater works. As the Newts multiply, their number soon surpasses that of human beings. Although they remain underpaid, they ask for more than just knives. Metal especially and other raw materials disappear with regularity under the waves for destinations unknown.

There is a lot which is not known. Worrying, is that all nations have instructed and trained their Newts in military ways. Entire divisions of underwater armies are protecting the bottom of the territorial waters. France and England for instance have build entire forts in the Channel. And what to say about the Uber – Newts who live in the German waters of the Baltic Sea and who are in dire need of more “Lebensraum”?

Worst of all, is that the humans, have absolutely no clue at all of what is happening in the underwater world…


Čapek got his idea for the Newts from a skeleton of an extinct giant salamander displayed in a Dutch museum: the Andrias ScheuchzeriIn his book Lithographia Helvetica from 1726, the scientist Scheuzer tought it was a human fossil and described it as a Homo Diluvii Testis et theoscopos ( A man who witnessed the Flood and saw God) believing the remains to be of a human that drowned in the biblical Deluge.

“The War with the Newts” , ( I love the Czech title : Válka s mloky ) is a thinly disguised dystopian satire. It is a fluent read, with lots of things happening, very funny and very entertaining, even to or maybe especially to the Modern reader. It has a Post – Modernist tang, I am sure lots of readers will appreciate like I did. Karel Čapek has build up his narrative in a very special way. Rather than bring his story in a conventional linear way, which would easily have the allure of a Fairy tale, the author brings us the story through a pile of realistic documents: Journals, newspaper clippings, summaries of board meetings, financial briefs, stock market alerts, National Geographic articles and so on. He does this with great skill, switching the writing style from journalistic, to scientific, to bureaucratic and back. The result is a kaleidoscopic rendering of the unfolding story and a plurality of voices which gives this satire a realistic edge. All this for the benefit of the spell-bound reader.

History itself is evidently the planned spoiler: we have seen it all before and from the first chapter, no, already from the title, the reader understands that all this well – meaning and good-doing will go wrong, terribly wrong.

Čapek (January 9, 1890 – December 25, 1938), deserves to be undusted. Arthur Miller found that "There was no writer like[Karel Čapek]”. He admired the unique combination of “prophetic assurance mixed with surrealistic humor and hard-edged social satire"
Still, while acknowledged as one of the most influential Czech writers of the 20th century, Čapek seems to be remembered mainly for his use of the word Robot, a word coined by his brother Josef, in his book R.U.R.
Karel Čapek, did not live to see, fortunately I would add, the disaster he predicted so accurately. He died three months before the invasion of the Czech Republic. His older brother Josef, an Artist and Musician, he too an enemy of the Third Reich, died in the concentration Camp of Bergen-Belsen in April 1945, just a few days before the liberation.
Čapek was nominated in November 1936 for the Nobel Prize but it was finally awarded to Eugene Gladstone O’Neill. It is said that Sweden feared Hitler’s reaction if they would choose the well – known Czech anti – fascist. Čapek’s widow remembered that: “the Academy told him they'd give him the prize if only he wrote something blandly inoffensive for them to pin it on, to which he retorted that he'd already submitted his doctoral dissertation” 
Čapek's work was posthumously only reluctantly accepted by the Communist government of Czechoslovakia. Čapek never hid his distrust for communism. In fact he said it clearly in a newspaper essay "Why I am not a Communist." 
“The War with the Newts” was an inspiration for Orwell's “Animal Farm” which appeared in 1944. Orwell experienced a similar political cowardness, when different publishers, including Faber and Faber,  refused to publish his book, because they considered it an attack on the Soviet regime, which was then a crucial ally in the war. 

Some lessons are hard to learn indeed

Lauded as an attack on the Nazis because of the historical context in which the book first appeared, I found it an indictment of much more and earlier humanitarian disasters: Slavery for example. The transport of the Newts towards their new working grounds, with mass dying of these animals on board of the ships because of terrible hygienic conditions parallels the dreadful era of the Negro slaves transported over the Atlantic. The use of “foreign soldiers” when the going gets tough in a military confrontation is another hint: tongue in cheek Čapek describes how the French use black “Tirailleurs Sénégalais” to knock down an insurgence in the Capital.

Čapek puts his finger on all evils of his time : Capitalisme, Communisme and Racisme. Only hard communism seems to have somewhat disappeared in the XXIth century.

That is the eerie side of this tale. We recognize what Čapek describes as still valid today.
The whole development of the story of the Newts, from their discovery until the global war, is predictable step by step, the whole string of occurrences. As a reader you recognize it from your daily reading of the newspaper and you have to approve the destructive logic Čapek develops. Yes you tend to say, this is how it should happen, this is how it would happen.

There is also a hint at personal responsibility. One mans serves as a red thread through the narrative: Mr. Povondra, the concierge of Mr. Bondy, the businessman who finances Van Toch’s ambition. "The concierge feels himself responsible?" I hear you say. Yes the poor man has this “idée fixe” that if he had not opened the door for Van Toch he could have averted the Apocalyptic War. It is ludicrous of course, Povondra could not have forseen what was going to happen, but it hints at a responsibility on a personal level. A responsibility Van Toch and Bondy could have assumed.

A last point I want to make is that the “problem of the Newts” is not apparent until it is too late. Self – centered Humanity has absolutely no clue of what is happening in the underwater world until it is too late. It is too late because of the sheer number of Newts who do not have space, "lebensraum” enough or food to feed themselves. It made me think about our overpopulation, about the billions of poor of which we have no clue of until the day that they too will demand their space  and their food.
Would I recommend “The war with the Newts”? Yes, certainly. The book is not only an agreeable and entertaining read, but contains beside its intrinsic merits, a lot of fine humor and real wisdom.
But I would also recommend it as a tribute to a man who dared to speak up and whose message was not endorsed by the ones who claim to award “the person who shall have the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency”.
Somehow, I think we owe him…