About Karel Capek

War with the Newts

» Karel Capek

Penguin Classics
Paperback : 06 May 2010


Read an extract from: War with the Newts

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War with the Newts (1936) is Karel Capek's darkly humorous allegory of early twentieth-century Czech politics. Captain van Toch discovers a colony of newts in Sumatra which can not only be taught to trade and use tools, but also to speak. As the rest of the world learns of the creatures and their wonderful capabilities, it is clear that this new species is ripe for exploitation - they can be traded in their thousands, will do the work no human wants to do, and can fight - but the humans have given no thought to the terrible consequences of their actions.


Reading Notes

WAR WITH THE NEWTS is a satire, a piece of science fiction, a parody of different literary forms and a chilling piece of political prophecy.  It is hard to think of another book like it.  Capek was the key figure at the heart of the vibrant Czechoslovak culture between the wars.  He is principally known in English-speaking countries as the inventor of the word 'robot' - but in Czech he is known as a novelist, playright, travel writer and journalist on dozens of different issues.
As a reading group book WAR WITH THE NEWTS has many virtues.  It transports the reader to a very vivid and gripping time in Europe's history - with Czechoslovakia one of the few remaining European democracies and the government in Prague overshadowed ever more by the uneasy, terrible threat of its Nazi neighbour.  This unease is felt throughout the book - the Newts are in some ways clearly Nazis - but Capek is writing much more than a simple satire - the Newts could also be exploited workers, or they could also just be science-fiction fantasies with no political meaning.
The different forms in which the book is written - jumping between fake academic reports, newspaper headlines and telegrams - add to the general sense of delight at Capek keeping himself and the reader entertained. 
He died in 1938 just after the Munich Agreement had allowed Nazi Germany to absorb large parts of Czechoslovakia, but was spared the knowledge that the rest of his country was invaded by Hitler the following year.
-- What sort of a book is WAR WITH THE NEWTS?
-- Does it succeed best as a fantasy or as a satire?
-- What can we tell about Europe in the 1930s from the book?
-- Is it a science-fiction novel? 
-- Does the 'chopped up' structure work?
-- The book is both a comedy and a chilling piece of prophecy - how does Capek manage to balance two such very different genres!  Does he do so successfully in fact?
--  The book is usually seen as an attack on Nazism, but in many ways it is more of a satire on Capek's own Czech countrymen and on parochial credulity.  Where do you think the book's heart lies?  Or can the book be about both?

Product details

Format : Paperback
ISBN: 9780141192703
Size : 129 x 198mm
Pages : 352
Published : 06 May 2010
Publisher : Penguin Classics

War with the Newts

» Karel Capek


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