War with the Newts by Karel Čapek (translated by Ewald Osers) is unfortunately one of those books I would never have come across if it wasn't for a little serendipity: I was introduced to it by a friend who had recently travelled to the Czech Republic, and who, whilst there, had decided to read a Czech novel or two. That I hadn't heard of it before may be the result of ignorance on my part, but, regardless of that small matter, this book deserves to be even more widely known.
First published in 1936, two years before Čapek's death at the age of 48, there's a classic timelessness about War with the Newts, even though the narrative voice comes across as a little dated at times - although this might also add to its charm. Overall though, it possesses a number of exceptional qualities that remind me, at one and the same time, of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, George Orwell's Animal Farm and Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle. That these three novels satirise the political follies of mankind may give an indication of what War with the Newts concerns itself with.
'Man discovers a species of giant, intelligent newts and learns to exploit them so successfully that the newts gain enough skills and arms to challenge man's place at the top of the animal kingdom. Along the way, Karel Čapek satirizes science, runaway capitalism, fascism, militarism, journalism, even Hollywood, yet he presents all the events on a comically human rather than spectacular scale.' Catbird Press edition
His astute portrayal of various national stereotypes certainly has relevance 70 years on, and the political insights he provides make it easy to see why the Nazi Gestapo named him Czechoslavakia's "public enemy number two."
Reading this was time well spent. Very glad I was introduced to it.