Five words from the blurb: humorous, newts, trade, exploitation, fight
War with the Newts was one of the titles that caught my eye when I was browsing 1001 Books: You Must Read Before You Die. I hadn’t heard of it before, but I love dystopian fiction and because the intelligent, talking newts sounded so different from anything I’d read before I ordered a copy from my library immediately. I’m so pleased that I discovered this Central European classic – it was original, entertaining and carried many important messages about our society.
The book begins with the discovery of a colony of newts in Sumatra and it is obvious that these animals are special. At first they are trained to bring up oysters; the humans taking the pearls, whilst the animals are rewarded with the shellfish. It seems like a good relationship, with both parties benefiting from the other, but mankind quickly realises that the newts can be exploited to a far greater extent. They are soon trained to build underwater structures and it isn’t long before they are being bred, sold and shipped around the world.
This book was easy and entertaining to read, but contained important messages about human greed. The blurb states that it is an allegory of early twentieth-century Czech politics, but I think the message is far broader than that. I can see similarities with many other governments and I think the moral problems introduced are universal.
War with the Newts was originally published in 1936 and I found it interesting to see how a Czech viewed the different countries of the world at this time. Stereotypes were used continually and it was amusing to see Capek’s opinion of how each country would treat the arrival of newts.
Part of me wished that the book had been more realistic. I think the story might have had more impact if the newts had remained well-trained animals instead of a special species that learned to talk overnight, but this is a minor quibble and I can see that much of the newt-based humour would have been lost if they hadn’t had the ability to communicate.
My only real issue with the book was the footnotes – they increased as the book progressed and seemed to get longer all the time. At some points the story in the footnote was longer than the actual scene in the book. It was distracting and ruined the narrative flow.
Although this book isn’t perfect it is an important book that deserves a wider audience. Recommended.