Monday, 21 May 2018

War with the Newts

Karel Čapek War with the Newts (1937)
I had to pick this up on the strength of his play, RUR, from which - as we all know - the term robot was first originated. I haven't seen the play, nor read whatever printed form it may take, but its historical significance is difficult to deny. The robots of RUR are apparently more like what we might regard as androids - artificial humans rather than clanking things of cogs and screws - and the play seems very much of its era when we consider Fernand Léger's Ballet Mécanique or the Futurists' obsession with industrialised humanity. Of course, where Fortunato Depero and others aspired to map out a progressive future - at least aesthetically speaking - Čapek's play was a warning in which the robot underclass inevitably rebels.

War with the Newts seems to be more or less the same fable retold around the discovery of a dexterous and sentient amphibian species which is quickly enslaved and put to service as menial workers, just like the robots. Parallels with the slave trade as was are fairly obvious.

After all it is only natural that the Newts ceased to be a marvel as soon as there were hundreds and millions of them in the world; the popular interest which they had provoked while they were some sort of a novelty only lingered on for some time in film caricatures (Sally and Andy, two good salamanders) and on cabaret platforms, where singers and comedians endowed with specially bad voices appeared in the irresistible role of a croaking Newt poorly expressing itself in bad grammar.

Yet an odd note is struck a couple of pages later when we read of Louise Zimmerman campaigning for Newt rights and the education of the same by terms which seem equally satirical, leaving us with an ambiguity as to whether Čapek saw his Newts as a natural underclass or as victims of capitalism. A quick rummage through Čapek's credentials leave one in no doubt as to his progressive political sympathies, but this book is, I'm afraid, a bit of a mess.

Some of the problem may have arisen in translation, but even allowing for semiotic drift, War with the Newts still suffers from its basic structure shifting focus from one section to the next.

Of the three books into which the novel is divided, the first is so heavy with rambling inconsequential dialogue as to suggest he would rather have written a play. The whimsical monologues of a number of characters serve to map the discovery of the Newts as something occurring off stage, but the tone reminds me of those Marx Brothers routines based around someone saying something ridiculous too fast, then abruptly changing tack before we've had time to digest the first sequence of zingers; and it becomes exhausting after a hundred or so pages.

The second book further confirms that we'll be getting this story in anecdotal snippets, by intersecting its text with endless footnotes and faux newspaper articles reporting on the Newts as they are set to work on behalf of human society. Different fonts abound and the page occasionally divides into three separate streams of text. The technique was probably innovative at the time, but in 2018 it reads as a gimmick, even lazy. I ended up skipping about twenty pages of this because it was too difficult to follow and none of what I read seemed to matter.

Finally we have the third book which settles down into a narrative related in the manner of a detailed news report or an historical discourse, concluding in a highly unsatisfactory manner with a final chapter in which the author has a conversation with himself about whether the ending of the book is any good.

It wasn't.

Nor was the rest of it anything special. There were some nice ideas here, but for the most part it reads like Čapek was pissing about in a desperate attempt to keep himself interested in a story he'd already told as RUR.

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