Proper Words in Proper Places: The Challenge of Capek's War
with the Newts
Karel Capek. War
with the Newts, trans. M. & R. Weatherall (1937) for Allen &
Unwin. Introduction (1985) by Ivan Klima. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1985. xxi +
348pp. $24.95 (cloth); $8.95 (paper).
----------. War with the
Newts, trans. Ewald Osers. London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1985. 241pp.
War with the Newts was originally published in Prague in 1936 and was written
in Czech. At first glance this statement may seem merely factual, and yet the more one
considers the book's speedy impact on Western readers, the more impressive it is: Allen
and Unwin's version, for example, came out in 1937 and so was made available to a wide
readership (which included George Orwell) before Capek's death in 1938 and before the Nazi
invasion of Czechoslovakia. Admittedly Kafka, who spent most of his life in Prague, was
already a considerable cult figure in the Western Europe of the 1930s; but Kafka wrote in
German. Yet even before the First World War, before Czechoslovakia won freedom from the
Austro-Hungarian Empire, Capek chose to write in Czech; and he continued to do so
throughout his life, despite a university career which took him to both Berlin and
Paris. By the '20s he had proved, especially with his play R.U.R., that his
choice of language was no deterrent to international recognition; but he had certainly
gambled with his eyes open. So what made him turn his back on easier ways of gaining a
following abroad and choose to write on universal themes in a little-known literary
Less than 100 years before Capek wrote War with the Newts, Czech could not be
considered seriously as a literary vehicle. The country remained part of the
Austro-Hungarian Empire throughout the 19th century; it was only in the 1840s that the
need for an independent cultural identity began to assert itself insistently, and with it
the desire to write in Czech. Yet what were to be the models for pioneers of literary
expression such as Jan Neruda? Extraordinarily, they chose to turn for guidance to the
16th-century Kralická Bible, whose literary mode came closest to the Czech dialect still
spoken in the Balbin district. In other words, although the urge to write in Czech came
from a stubbornly maintained spoken language, a literary language was resurrected and
reconstructed from an archaic prototype in the second half of the 19th century.
Given the reputation of German as a literary language on the one hand and the rapidly
growing strength of Russian literature on the other, the attempt to establish Czech as a
literary vehicle between 1840 and 1880 must have seemed a gesture more akin to the world
of fantasy than to self-evident fact. Yet it was to work; and in the hands of Karel Capek
(also, to a lesser extent, Jaroslav Hasek with The Good Soldier Schweik [1921-23]),
it was to capture the attention of the West.
Indeed, the whole question of language is of crucial importance in War with the
Newts, although it is one of the most difficult aspects of the work to convey fully
in translation. Capek is a past master at moving from the ultraliterary to the colloquial,
and can imitate or parody any verbal register: journalistic (popular press or periodical),
scientific, legal, bureaucratic, political --all have their moments under his microscope.
And there are other language games. Take the case of Captain van Toch, who opens the book.
When we first meet him in Dutch Indonesia, he seems to be a typical Dutch merchant seaman.
But we soon discover that he is nothing of the kind: his name is Vantoch and he is Czech.
Part of the fun here is that Czechoslovakia is not a maritime country and so, as Vantoch
says himself, Czech sea captains are rare. However, Czechoslovakia--even Vantoch's own
modest place of birth--does supply captains of industry (Bondy is in fact a central
character in The Factory of the Absolute, or The Absolute at Large,
Capek's novel of 1922), and so has its own channel through which it can reach the outside
world. But the main thrust of the joke borders, for Czech readers, on black comedy:
Captain van Toch deliberately passes himself off as Dutch in Indonesia. A shrewd adoption
of local color perhaps; yet we soon find that he is cavalier, to say the least, in his
attitude to language. He speaks Malay to the Bataks; but they do not understand him, since
they-- unsurprisingly-- speak Batak (not "Batavian," a coinage of the Allen and
Unwin translation). And the full extent of his linguistic folly is revealed when he
returns home to Czechoslovakia. He cannot remember Czech words and frequently resorts to
other languages, especially English. This is not a problem which is fully exposed or
exploited in either of the translations under review, with the result that conversation
in, for example, the chapter "G.H. Bondy and his Fellow Countryman" often seems
oddly repetitive in English. In the original, however, we find that Vantoch has forgotten
so much of his Czech that he offers terms which his compatriot has to translate. (In
fairness, it should be said that Capek mocks both parties: Bondy is disappointed when he
discovers that he is dealing with a mere Czech and not a foreigner.)
The linguistic thread, I repeat, is crucial to War with the Newts since one of
the Newts' most impressive abilities is that they can speak and read easily when given the
chance. This skill is shown to be quite as important as their adaptability to tools and
technology; indeed, without their linguistic capacity they would be impervious to
exploitation. Language is inevitably the means used to indoctrinate them with a confusing
medley of humankind's ideas, and is inextricably linked with that extrapolation from
certain modes of thought which Capek shows so mercilessly as leading to the
destabilization and corruption of the Newts. Yet Capek does not preach at us pedantically;
indeed, he uses one of his prime concerns, the status of the Czech language, as a vehicle
for comic relief. One superb moment occurs in the second book when all countries are vying
for linguistic domination of the Newts. The Czechs decide that, although they are not a
maritime nation, they too must compete; and they accordingly produce "a small manual,
Czech for Newts, complete with examples of Czechoslovak belles-lettres.
It may sound incredible, but over seven thousand copies of that little book were actually
sold; all in all, therefore, it was a remarkable success" (WWN 2:2:147).1 (It should be said that at the time of the sale there are
millions of Newts in the world. ) And Capek does not leave the matter there: one copy of Czech
for Newts is found in the hands of a Newt on the lonely Galapagos Islands. Its
learned questioning of two literary Czech tourists on the state of their language exposes
the fragility of Czech as a literary language:
'Alas, there is no one here to whom I could speak Czech' our new friend remarked
modestly, 'and I am not even quite sure whether the instrumentative case of the word kon
is koni or konmi.'
`Ko'nmi,' I said.
'Oh no, koni,' my wife exclaimed with animation. (WWN 2:2:148)
But Capek does not use language as an end in itself: it is always a tool, an
"ideas" weapon. The "small manual, Czech for Newts," contains
examples of "Czechoslovak belles-lettres," we remember; yet when the
Czech-speaking Newt questions the tourists about what he has been reading, the
subject-matter sounds, to say the least, surprising. The Newt comments, for example, on:
'...the disaster of the White Mountain and the three hundred years of servitude. I have
read a lot about it in this book. No doubt you are very proud of your three hundred years
of servitude. That was a great period, sir!'
'Yes, a hard period,' I agreed: 'A period of oppression and grief.'
'And did you groan?' our friend inquired with keen interest.
'We groaned, suffering inexpressibly under the yoke of the savage oppressors.'
'I am delighted to hear it,' the Newt heaved a sigh of relief, 'That is exactly what it
says in my book. I am happy to find it is true.' (WWN 2:2: 149)
Here Capek not only mocks his fellow-countrymen for wallowing in past sufferings but
shrewdly shows how this kind of pride in humiliation can be fostered in others; after all,
the Newts are experiencing just such servitude themselves, albeit the literary tourists do
not note the parallel.
This kind of indoctrination by language rather than its content is demonstrated,
wittily and perceptively, elsewhere. Andrew Scheuchzer, the Newt kept at the London Zoo,
is taught to speak and read by his taciturn keeper; the intellectuals are too busy being
"scientific" about the Newt to look to its intellectual development, which in
any case they choose to doubt. So Andrew learns language from an inarticulate man who
supplies his charge with evening papers. Again Capek slyly inserts warning signals amidst
the humor, as when Andrew answers questions posed by the learned team eventually sent to
investigate his articulateness. All answers come from advertisements and journalistic
How many continents are there?
Very good. Which are they?
A: England and the rest.
Which are the rest?
A: The Bolsheviks and the Germans. And Italy.
Where are the Gilbert Islands?
A: In England. England will not tie herself to the Continent. England needs ten
thousand aircraft. Visit the English south coast. (WWN 1:9:84)
Inevitably the intellectuals conclude their report on this conversation with
predictable complacency: "There is absolutely no need to overrate [the Newt's]
intelligence, since in no respect does it exceed the intelligence of the average person of
our time" (WWN 1:9:85). Later, with acute wit and a built-in warning about
the relation of language and patterns of (rather than capacity for) thought, Capek records
the arguments concerning the language which Newts ought to speak. All sorts of theories
are propounded but no conclusive decision is reached, so that in the end: "The fact
was that Basic English was the most common language among the Newts and subsequently
became the official Newt language" (WWN 2:2:145).
As I have already indicated, the full impact and import of Capek's handling of language
in War with the Newts is extremely difficult to convey in translation since, as
Capek himself is the first to acknowledge within his own work, language and culture are so
intimately connected. This point is demonstrated, for instance, when we are told that,
although the "wild" male Newts have an intricate and "strangely
beautiful" dance which they perform on the shore at night, no one bothers to ask them
about its significance: linguistic communication with these savages is minimal. Instead
they are talked out of their dance and taught to label it a "bestial and low
practice" which is "shameful and dissolute" (WWN 2:2:143). Yet
human intellectuals theorize about the dance's meaning, while the privileged human young
attempt to imitate it at parties and secret orgies. Capek never tells us what the dance
really meant to Newts; and his and their silence on the subject is all the more audible
since we know that both he and they can be extremely articulate. The intellectuals argue
away the Newts' facility with language as "parrot-like"; the human governments
and their technologists put emphasis instead on the Newts' extraordinary capacity with
tools and later with sophisticated technology.
What Capek sees with such clarity is the peril of technology divorced from an
articulated culture. The decline into a utilitarian desert is already implied in the
central book concerning the history of the Newts:
...what else is civilization than the ability to make use of things invented by someone else? Even if, for the sake of argument, the Newts have no original ideas of their own
they can perfectly well have their own science. True, they have no music or literature of
their own but they manage perfectly well without; indeed people are beginning to think
that this is marvelously modern of them....Never before in human history has so much been
manufactured, constructed or earned as in this great age.... [The] Newts have brought
enormous progress to the world, as well as the ideal called Quantity....[G]ood heavens,
how can you compare us with that outmoded Human Age with its ponderous, finicky and
useless fuss that went by the name of culture, the arts, pure science and what have you! (WWN
Capek leaves his readers to recall that the Newts have never been encouraged to develop
or articulate their own culture, and have been taught to see it in such a degrading or
irrelevant way that they have understandably concentrated on unadulterated pragmatism.
However, the author makes his point about the importance of language, text, the arts,
"and what have you" by every means at his disposal. He not only builds his case
into the themes and plot of War with the Newts; he uses his own textual skills.
He underlines shifts in register, culture, or time by the visual effects of shifts in
typeface; he quotes from unnamed and sometimes invented languages with no attempt at
translation; he gives us the all-important pictorial illustration of that first salamander
skeleton so ironically thought to be human...and it does look human.
So far I have been discussing Capek's concern for language and endeavoring to identify
the role which he assigns to it. He is opposed to nationalism, yet he argues for the
importance of culture; he writes in Czech, yet he wields his language as a weapon against
the whole of his contemporary world. And so it is surely not self-contradictory that,
although he writes in Czech, he draws on many foreign sources for his mode of writing.
Furthermore, he was working within a still youthful Czech literary tradition which had
every opportunity to look abroad for fresh models: during the years when he was writing,
Prague was an increasingly vigorous center for translation and publication; Western texts
and expatriate or internally censored Russian texts all found an outlet through the Prague
presses. Wells and Huxley were just two of the Western writers available; and it was the
Prague editions of Zamyatin's We in 1927 which provoked Stalin's wrath against
that author. Capek therefore had many cultures on his doorstep, as it were. In the
mid-19th century, when still dominated by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, writers not
unnaturally had looked to the West; but by the last quarter of the century, the growing
intellectual ferment in Russia, together with the common Slavonic roots of Russian and
Czech, had led some writers, such as Jan Kollar, to look to the East as well. Capek, in War
with the Newts, looks in both directions; and this combination of influences has to
be taken into account if we are to appreciate Capek's subtlety.
For it is not quite fair to say, as Klima says (and as Frantisek Buriánek says in his
afterword to the 1968 Prague edition of Krakatit ), that Capek is primarily
against science and technology, any more than it is fair to say the same of his Russian
contemporary, Zamyatin. Zamyatin takes on the whole organ of state in the futuristic
society of We; Capek tackles an extraordinary range of contemporary ideas with
the lightest of touches in War with the Newts. In the Western tradition, both
writers acknowledge their indebtedness to Wells. Certainly the beginning of War with
the Newts, with its gradual movement from a straight sea-yarn to the fabular
encounter with the Newts is highly reminiscent of a number of Wells's short stories, as is
the lightly handled macabre wit; and the overall scope of Capek's book is reminiscent of
Wells's longer works, such as A Modern Utopia (1905). But Capek, I would argue,
is more successful than Wells in his capacity to contain within a relatively short work
such a large scale of reference. Virtually nothing in world politics or ideas is omitted,
and yet there is tight structuring and none of the Grand-Old-Man tone of Wells's late
pronouncements. Capek moves deftly from the exploitation of the Newts to the exploitation
of human beings, with an expository central book purporting to be a history of the Newts
but which Capek uses to review his contemporary world and its roots wittily and
mercilessly; and such structuring is not one of Wells's strengths in his wide-ranging
later works. It is true that Capek's coda to his book is as chilling as it is humorous and
that this is a Wellsian touch; but I would argue that Capek's use of literary devices to
expose the manipulation of society and events by words goes far beyond Wells in skill and
Within the text of War with the Newts, Capek puts Wells in the company of
Aldous Huxley, whose Brave New World was published in 1932; and certainly the
Appendix on "The Sex Life of the Newts" offers parodic echoes of Huxley's
futuristic work. But while the human sex-life which Huxley describes in Brave New
World amusingly caricatures body contact, Capek outdoes him satirically by showing a
similar kind of Newt sex-life which humankind dismisses or dissects with clinical
detachment and cruelty simply because it is alien. And Capek's links with Western
literature are by no means confined to writers of SF or (to use a favorite term of his)
utopias. For example, he also mentions Joseph Conrad in War with the Newts: Bondy
sees van Toch's adventures (and incidentally Bondy always uses the Dutch pseudonym, no
doubt as a sign of his taste for the exotic) as partly Conradian in their romantic
tendencies. But while the Indonesian explorations and Vantoch's sentimental references to
the Newts do indeed recall, say, the later sections of Lord Jim (1900), there may
also be a dig (given Capek's de-Czeched van Toch) at Conrad's defection from his native
Poland (and Polish language) to the English literary scene. It is thus fair to say that
while Capek does draw on a number of Western writers (and I have only mentioned a sample
selection), he adapts them to his own vision and remains very much his own man.
Fringing these direct literary references is a wide range of names which reveal Capek's
considerable knowledge of Western personalities and ideas, extending from the political
and philosophical to the scientific and technological. An amusing instance is the
composition of the team of intellectuals who visit the London Zoo Newt: two of its members
are named as Sir Oliver Dodge and Julian Foxley (who scarcely disguise Lodge the
spiritualist and Aldous's brother, an atheist, respectively)--no intellectual aberration
or eccentricity would seem to escape Capek. And just as nothing is too marginal for his
attention, so nothing is too central to unnerve him: the Chief Salamander is revealed at
the end of the book to be "human. His real name is Andreas Schultze and during the
War he was a sergeant-major somewhere" (WWN 3:11:239). As Klima implies,
both background and pseudonym (related as the latter is to Andrias Scheuchzeri, the racial
name perfunctorily bestowed on the Newts by the humans) are at least partly reminiscent of
This last, teasingly screened "identification" brings us to one of the most
intriguing Eastern influences on Capek's work: the Aesopian language first perfected in
l9th-century Russia and given its label by the satirist Saltykov-Shchedrin (like Capek, a
master of many verbal registers). Recently, an admirable book by Lev Loseff has appeared,2 a book much needed to elucidate a mode of writing not always
fully understood in the West. Loseff examines the type of oblique writing which is often
used under totalitarian regimes when censorship is particularly strict. Its popularity,
like that of satire in the West, tends to fluctuate: just as Saltykov-Shchedrin was
admired by Chekhov, for example, Aesopian language was deplored by Dostoyevsky. But it
is never entirely out of vogue. Following the example of Saltykov-Shchedrin and of the
Russian fabulist Krylov, a translator of La Fontaine (who himself figures in a
"charitable" education syllabus for Capek's Newts) and subsequently the inventor
of his own Russian fables early in the 19th century, Lenin used Aesopian language under
the Tsars; Zamyatin used it first under the Tsars and later under the Bolsheviks; while
Shvarts, Solzhenitsyn, and the brothers Strugatsky are among those who have used it under
the Soviet regime up to the end of the 1960s.
Aesopian language does not, despite the implications of its name, necessarily involve
the use of animal fable; it is a mode rather than a genre, employing various means of both
concealing and signaling references to extratextual matters. Some works are entirely
Aesopian, others only partially so. Loseff's epigraph, taken from Gogol's short story
"The Nose" (1836), helps to identify the mode while also showing its relevance
to Capek's War with the Newts:
'But what makes my business unreasonable? It wouldn't seem to be any thing of the sort'
'That's the way you see it' [the clerk at the newspaper office responds]. 'But look
here, the same thing happened last week. A civil servant came in exactly as you have now,
brought a hand-written note, the change came to two rubles and seventy-two copecks, and
all he wanted to announce was that a black poodle had run away. Ask yourself, what could
be wrong with that? But it turned out to be libel; that so-called poodle was the treasurer
of some institution, I don't remember which one.'
This extract identifies both the uses of Aesopian language and its capacity for being
either overlooked or misinterpreted. It relies very much on its readership's familiarity
with what is referred to extratextually, with the complication that it must inform some
while keeping others (such as the censors) in the dark. Its references may be lost with
time; or new referents, never dreamed of by the author, may emerge long after the text has
been written (as happened with Stalin's fresh interpretation of Zamyatin's We and,
in different countries at different times, with Orwell's 1984).3
Artistically, as Loseff is careful to point out, Aesopian language must be judged on
its literary merits; but an understanding of its intentionalist if volatile nature
immeasurably enriches any reading of works where it is employed, as it frequently lurks
at the core of the text in question. And while Loseff concentrates on Russian texts,
Aesopian language is by no means confined to Russian, as has already been implied; Capek
is only one of many non-Russian writers to use the mode alongside elements
better known in Western literatures.
It is, incidentally, worth pausing to wonder where Kafka, Capek's Czech contemporary,
stands in relation to all these literary concerns. It is true that he was a Jew who wrote
in German, but for most of his life he lived and worked in Prague; and when one reads such
stories as "The Giant Mole," "The Great Wall of China," or
"Investigations of a Dog" (all first published in 1931), there seem to be
striking similarities with a number of Capek's own themes in War with the Newts:
manipulation of words and of people in the first two, the need for cultural identity in
the last. (But it is impossible to pin Kafka down; his wit and virtuosity are as baffling
as his apparently lucid style. Is he using Aesopian language or not?) It is usual for
critics to point to Kafka's introspection and obsessive preoccupation with Jewish society.
But were not the beleaguered advocates of the Czech language and culture somewhat
similarly placed? Had not they also suffered a similar identity crisis, been similarly
repressed? (Capek's literary tourists in the Galapagos suggest as much in their
conversation with the Czech-speaking Newt.) Did not they too experience something of a
ghetto status in relation to the German culture which threatened to overwhelm them, and a
sense of cultural siege when confronted by the Western and Eastern literatures and ideas
being published so zealously in their own country? Capek's impressive capacity for weaving
these different strands together and making them serve his own vision has already been
remarked; but might synthesis have been basic to the culture of his time in Prague rather
than only personal to him?
One might be forgiven for suspecting that Kafka uses Aesopian language in such works as
"The Giant Mole," just as Capek can surely be suspected of it in his handling of
the Newts. He is careful to make these "creatures" as difficult to pin down in
their own way as any of Kafka's non-human characters. At times, Newts evoke colonial
exploitation or slave-trading; at others, the manipulation of the lower strata of society.
Newts are used as butts by the worst representatives of science, technology, popular
entertainment, education, insensitive charity, and so on. They are used as echoes of our
past, critiques of our present, and warnings for our future. They are no true denizens of
animal fable as such, any more than are Kafka's non-human creatures in his short stories;
they are yardsticks against which we can measure the human race and by which we can
recognize caricatures of human foibles and failings.
One might also usefully compare Capek's handling of his Newts with Stanislaw Lem's much
more recent handling of his Ocean in Solaris (1961), where humankind's capacity
for arrogant and monomaniacal extrapolation from its own experience and environment is
shown up as potentially absurd in, for example, biological and metaphysical analysis. Both
Capek and Lem delight in parodying the so-called masters of fact, the "experts,"
with regard to their language, ideas, and narcissistic love of their own theories. And (a
small but witty and telling example) both Capek and Lem delight in the teasing
implications of the naming of their characters. Capek's Newts are branded with the generic
name Andrias Scheuchzeri, derived from the false premise of the scientist Scheuchzer, who
thought a Newt skeleton was protoman. Thanks to Scheuchzer's Germanic origin, that
fallacious name is enough to initiate the cult of the Nordic Newt as the original
master-race (Capek's use of Aesopian language could not be more clearly marked than here).
Lem's use of names can be equally mischievous. Solaris lies in the constellation Alpha
in Aquarius: "Alpha" can signal the notion of first and/or best, while Aquarius,
the water-carrier (a suitable venue for the ocean-planet Solaris) stands for peace.
Meanwhile the woman conjured out of the protagonist's subconscious is called Harey, a name
which is surely an anagram for Rheya, one of the cult-titles for the Greek earth-goddess
of fertility (and indeed "Rheya" has been substituted for "Harey" in
both the French and English translations of Solaris), eternally youthful,
loyal, not entirely human, and ultimately sacrificial. Does she have links with the
overwhelmingly fervent cult of the Madonna in Poland, a profound symbol of Polish
identity? This is how the possible presence of Aesopian language can tease us.
Lem's subtleties are in the end of a very different order from Capek's, although both
writers expose the strengths and vulnerability of Aesopian language since, as I have
already pointed out, its use risks a reader's blindness and/or misinterpretation.
Superficially at least, Capek is more detached, more comic, even if his comedy is often of
the black, absurdist variety ("cathartic comedy" is one of Loseff's challenging
and helpful categories of Aesopian language). Lem on the other hand frequently mentions
the comic in Solaris: his protagonist often speaks of what might be comic,
given other circumstances. But then Lem's protagonist is a first-person narrator who has
lost his sense of the comic. The only hint that he himself is basically a creature of
comedy is the fact that he is an expert in psychology who gives way to irrational terrors
from his first moment on Solaris. There is more than one way of writing Aesopian language.
All the matters which I have so far been discussing only go to prove the enormous
problems facing translators of Capek's War with the Newts. We now have two
English translations. The Northwestern University edition reproduces the original Allen
and Unwin version (which Orwell must have known) and adds the introduction by the
contemporary Czech writer Ivan Klíma. This is a less accurate and on the whole less
felicitous translation than Ewald Osers' new version; but the re-issue of the older text
is beautifully presented and picks up more of the visual games with typeface found in the
Czech original. The Unwin text, on the other hand, is deplorably printed; the footnotes in
particular are practically microscopic--which is sad as they are extremely witty and Osers
has captured that wit. Despite the occasional, distressing inaccuracies and greater
clumsiness of the older version, Klíma's introduction is a valuable addition, since he
emphasizes the continuing relevance of Capek's work. It is only fair to add that he
himself slips up occasionally: for instance, while it is true that Karel and his brother
Josef collaborated in the writing of some early works and that Karel illustrated a few
of his own texts, Josef illustrated and designed covers for several of his younger
brother's works (and it would have been nice to give Josef the credit he deserves
for inventing that famous word "robot"). But such small inaccuracies do not
significantly detract from what Klima has to say; and it would be equally unfair to cavil
over the problems which both translations inevitably face when they come to transfer into
English the cultural signals and Aesopian language of Capek's text, for here they must
depend to a great extent on the reader's capacity to pick up and respond to such matters,
a skill which few Western readers have acquired. In the end, the two translations
supplement each other very usefully.
But the fact that Western readers, as Loseff emphatically asserts, have little skill in
recognizing Aesopian language is an important issue. Orwell certainly used the mode in Animal
Farm (1945), but was even he aware of the full import of Aesopian language? Was he,
for example, led astray when, in 1984, he gave so many pages to Goldstein's book?
Certainly, when set beside Capek's central section on the history of the Newts, Orwell's
exposition has lamentably little impact. Is this because he failed to learn the full
lesson of Capek's Aesopian skills and "cathartic comedy"? To take another
example, it seems to me that Capek's Newts, ultimately condemned to speak Basic English,
reflect a problem of articulation facing a far larger cross-section of today's society
than do Orwell's intellectual sufferers from Newspeak, despite the insight the latter
language has brought us. These are fascinating matters for debate, since they emphasize
the problem as to what is transferable from cultures well-versed in official and
unofficial censorship to readers who are not so highly sensitized. And the problem is all
the more striking since Capek and Orwell were ultimately similar in their motivation.
Klima tells us, for instance, that it was "the tragedy of the [1914-18] war and the
nation's restored independence" which informed all of Capek's later work.
"Just after the publication of War with the Newts," Klíma notes (p.
viii), Capek wrote: "Literature that does not care about reality or about what is
really happening to the world, literature that is reluctant to react as strongly as word
and thought allow, is not for me." This commitment finds its echo in Orwell's essay
"Why I Write," published in 1946: "Every line of serious work that I have
written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism
and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a
period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects."
The fact that War with the Newts was published in 1936 and Orwell's moment of
truth came in the same year is, on the face of it, pure coincidence. Orwell's epiphany
occurred during the Spanish Civil War while Capek's enlightenment happened in the First
World War, Orwell experienced conversion abroad while Capek suffered his at home. Yet both
were uttering the words quoted above towards the end of lives as writers, lives which they
had both come to regard as "active" contributions to the societies of their day.
And both set high store by their responsibility to language and the artistry through which
they conveyed their message.
In the end Loseff is right. We must judge War with the Newts on its literary
merits, and I would maintain that it has held up extraordinarily well. Its structure is
elegantly conceived; its wit remains witty--if only because the world of today is still
paralyzed by the dilemmas facing Capek's world.
Capek is adept at exposing those dilemmas, and both translations of his last book have
a useful contribution to make. The older version, together with its new Introduction, sets
the 1930s against the present; Osers' version corrects a number of mistranslations and is
more sensitive to shifts in style. Both allow us to see, through Capek's War with the
Newts, that SF can make a vital contribution to 20th-century
literature--intellectually, artistically, and as a means of exploring the awesome
implications of language used as a weapon.
1. For the reasons given towards the end of this review-article, my
quotations from War with the Newts rely on the Osers translation.
2. The Loseff book I am referring to is called On the
Beneficence of Censorship: Aesopian Language in Modern Russian Literature, trans.
Jane Bobko (Munich, 1984).
3. This does not necessarily imply that Capek, living under a
social-democratic regime in pre-World II Czechoslovakia, was under compulsion (any more
than Orwell was) to resort to the Aesopian mode--as Russian writers were under the Czar
and under the Soviet Regime. I do mean to say, however, that both Capek and Orwell were
familiar with texts using Aesopian language and were influenced by them.
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