1930s Books in Translation Classics

War with the Newts by Karel Capek

War with the Newts (Penguin Translated Texts) Translated from the Czech by M and R Weatherall

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.

It formed a mass of black, squirming, confused and croaking flesh on which dull thuds kept falling. Then a gap opened between two oars; one Newt slipped away and was stunned with a blow on its neck; after it another and another, till about twenty were lying there. ‘Stop it,’ shouted our leader, and the gap between the oars closed up again. Bully Beach and the half-bread Dingo snatched up in each hand the leg of one of the senseless Newts and dragged them over the sand to the boats like lifeless logs. Sometimes the stupefied body stuck fast between the rocks; then the sailor would give a sharp and savage jerk, and the leg would come off. ‘that’s noting,’ murmured old Mike, who stood beside me. ‘Why, man, he’ll grow another one.’

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.


1980s Books in Translation Classics Film

I Served the King of England – Bohumil Hrabal (Book and DVD)

 Translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson

I Served the King of England was the Claire’s choice for Savidge Reads’ and Kimbofo’s book group, but we all agreed that it wasn’t anything special. We were surprised that it featured on the Guardian’s 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read list, as we felt that it failed to provide anything particularly special or unique.

The book follows the life of Ditie, a short man with big ambitions. Beginning in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s, we follow his career as makes his fortune working in hotels. His observations are both bizarre and mildly amusing, but I failed to see the point of them. Ditie’s life is then changed drastically when the communists come to power. I won’t spoil the last part of the book for you, but you can imagine that life during WWII will not be as light and amusing as the first half of the book. The weirdness continues, but it is shadowed with a darker, more threatening atmosphere.

The problem with the book was that it failed to engage me. I was laughing at it, rather than with it and scenes which should have been shocking, failed to affect me. The book just passed me by, without letting me become emotionally involved.  

The ending annoyed me a lot. It came over as very preachy, over explaining the moral message that the author hoped to teach us in writing the book. It was the only time that the book had managed to evoke an emotion in me and I felt patronised and used.

Confused at why this book was so highly regarded I did a little bit of research and discovered that the film had been well received, so decided to order a copy.

The film turned out to be a lot better than the book. The order of everything was changed, so that the shocking war scenes were placed next to the light humour of life in the hotel. This meant that the power of each scene was enhanced. I immediately saw what the author had been trying the achieve, but also why he had failed. Some of the story line was changed (no baby + different ending, for example), but I thought these were all improvements to the story. I would place this in my top 50 films of all time (the book won’t get close!)

I highly recommend the DVD to anyone who likes to watch foreign language films., but the book is nothing special.

Book: stars3h

DVD: stars4h