Before the Flood: Karel Čapek and the Destructive Drift of History

By Gregory MorrisonFebruary 17, 2017

Before the Flood: Karel Čapek and the Destructive Drift of History

War with the Newts by Karel Čapek

THE GREAT MISCONCEPTION about the apocalypse is that it comes all at once. Annihilation rushes on the scene in various forms: zombies or communists, terrorists or apes, dope fiends or aliens. In almost every case it is a surging crowd — the overwhelming swarm.

But disaster does not come without warning. The Nazis inspired fear and disgust with their surprise attacks, and built their whole military around a doctrine of “lightning war.” Yet for nearly 20 years, fascism had been a political force on the continent, and protesters had criticized and resisted it ceaselessly. When the tanks finally rolled in, few were truly surprised.

The Czech writer Karel Čapek had been one of those voices crying out in protest. In his 1936 novel War with the Newts, Čapek unfolds the slowest apocalypse in all of literature. Disaster comes bit by bit, at the hands of one of the least threatening creatures on earth: the newt.

Even in 1936, there was still time to stop what became inevitable. That year, the Olympics were held in Berlin, and the Nazis exulted in an opportunity to proclaim the biological superiority of the master race. Čapek grew up in the last years of the 19th century, an era that codified “survival of the fittest” as the iron law of nature, paving the way for the Nazis’ ideology of racial elitism.

War with the Newts sprang from a scribbled sentence: “You mustn’t think that the evolution that gave rise to our form of life was the only evolutionary possibility on this planet.” Čapek had dabbled in philosophical science fiction before; indeed, he is probably best known for coining the word “robot” in his satirical play R.U.R. (1920). War with the Newts examines the problem of fate and determinism with a new boldness. On every page, the disaster creeps further and further along, and the movement is as deliberate as the inexorable gears of some great machine. Each step is a chance to change history; unfortunately, people only rarely realize that they are living in history.

Fittingly, War with the Newts speaks with the jumble of everyday life: news reports, scientific conclusions, diplomatic cables, press statements from governments and corporations. Čapek relished clichés, tired phrasings, the familiar verbal junk that fills out sentences and covers subjects on which we have nothing to say. Language works this way because much of life itself runs in accordance with familiar grammars. We speak routine sentences because the world is, by and large, predictable. Čapek would add: predictably disastrous.

War with the Newts begins in the South Pacific, where an old captain named van Toch discovers a species of gigantic salamanders with near-human intelligence. Their little hands are devilishly skilled at retrieving pearls. But salty old captains are full of yarns, and it’s hard to trust them. When a movie producer’s son and his entourage encounter the newts, his girlfriend wants to film the creatures, so she can play a tropical queen in a King Kong–style fantasy. The brief shots of the newts get out, and by the laws of publicity, the creatures become a fad.

Modern society domesticates every new phenomenon with the culture industry: someone figures out a way to make it sell, and a way to make it screw. In New York, a newt-inspired musical runs for hundreds of performances; a new style of bathing suit appears on the beaches — “three strings of pearls and nothing else.” The newt mating ritual, a collective swaying and hissing that results in mass fertilization, inspires a salacious new dance for humans. Meanwhile, the “Movement for Suppression of Immorality (MSI)” suddenly becomes a powerful force: “mass demonstrations took place, and a few negroes were partly hanged or partly burned to death.” Resentment finds its old familiar scapegoats, no matter the trouble.

Only G. H. Bondy, a “captain of industry,” sees something more than profit or curiosity. He founds the Salamander Syndicate, a conspiracy of politicians and businessmen, to commandeer the newts. Bondy dreams of remaking the world: he has plans for “new coasts and canals, for causeways linking the continents, for whole chains of artificial islands, for transoceanic flights, for new continents to be built in the oceans.”

He is “interested in business as an artist.” One of his fellow capitalists criticizes him for talking about enterprise “as if this was a novel,” and Bondy agrees: “We must be poets if we are to keep the world turning.” These poets of capital will compose “the hymnic paean to labor.” The Salamander Syndicate is not grinding up the world in a strikingly cheap way; it is art, and a song in praise of work itself.

He promises “a new Genesis […] a new Atlantis […] New Worlds which mankind will build for itself […] Yes indeed, we are entering upon Utopia. We are right in it, my friends.” It is not enough to promise the world — the whole attic of legend and fable must be ransacked for the crowd.

After watching society reduce the newts to just another cog in their preoccupations, Bondy’s speech to the Salamander Syndicate is almost exciting. Here, at last, is boldness, passion, artistry — in a word, individuality. Bondy refuses to be reduced to the patterns offered by culture; he is the true innovator.

This is how people come to fantasize about their exploitation. Politics becomes a story line for people to gasp at and bicker over. There are no decisions or outcomes to evaluate: it is the conversion of society into melodrama.

Witnesses to the newt trade tell a rather different story. “Buccaneers of the Twentieth Century,” a fictional memoir by “E. E. K.,” shows Bondy’s newts carried from port to port, in stinking tubs of putrid water, slick with opalescent streaks of gasoline and covered in food and excrement.

Over a game of chess, E. E. K. tells a fellow newt trader named Bellamy that their work is “the shabbiest kind of slave trade.” Bellamy is unconcerned: “Newts are Newts,” he says, and E. E. K. points out that people said the same thing about African peoples during slavery. Bellamy responds, “And how right they were!” Then adds, “Check!” over the chessboard.

This provokes one of the most remarkable monologues in the book:

I lost that game. It suddenly seemed to me that every move on the board was old and had been made by someone before. Maybe our history has likewise been played through already and we are merely moving our chessmen to the same squares for the same defeats as in the past. Maybe just such a decent quiet chap as Bellamy once hunted Negroes on the Ivory Coast, shipped them to Haiti or Louisiana, and let them die like flies below deck. He had nothing evil in mind, that Bellamy. Bellamy never has anything evil in mind. That’s why he is incorrigible.

Bondy’s decision to give the newts dynamite and engineering skills proves fatal. Water had served as a curtain, hiding the newts and their arduous work, but now that same silence is menacing. After years of murder, enslavement, and exploitation, the newts strike back. What first seemed like a natural disaster in Louisiana turns out to be the newts, dynamiting almost an entire state into the Gulf of Mexico. Their leader, the Chief Salamander, declares that the newts need more room to live, and they intend to flood the world.

Humans try to resist, dropping bombs and firing guns, but the sea is an invulnerable fortress; the newts can always fight on land, but no human can fight underwater for long. Because the newts have all the knowledge and all the tools they need, there is no reason to doubt their success. At the end, in a chapter called “The Author Talks to Himself,” even Čapek concedes that humanity’s extinction is inevitable.

So who is responsible for this chain of grotesque events? Mr. Povondra, the doorman for the almighty industrialist G. H. Bondy, blames himself.

Povondra experienced an “embarrassing failure of the instinct which usually guided him” when a stranger knocks for his master. This man before him, this Captain van Toch, did not look like a traveling salesman or a beggar; he was merely fat, puffing, “mopping his bald head with his handkerchief.” Povondra, a man not given to spontaneity or to asserting his own will, “abruptly decided to assume entire responsibility,” and let the man in.

The newts fascinate Povondra. He takes his son to a circus sideshow, where an abused, sickly newt is dredged out of a tank to do lame math tricks. It sickens him, but he feels no obligation to act. To indulge Povondra’s new interest, Bondy orders the firm to send every worldwide news clipping about the newts to Povondra’s home. His house inadvertently collects the history of the newts. In about 70 pages of reports and headlines, a section Čapek caustically titles “Up the Ladder of Civilization,” the newts rise from obscurity to take the reins of power.

Each page brings the familiar clamor of troubles: economic indicators, the latest riots, disease, instability. Yet the endless stream of newspaper, of cheap pulp and wet ink, reassures people, gives continuity to the world. No one notices that beneath the tumult, every story cries out the same message: the end is near. Only when a newt reaches the Vltava, the river that runs through Prague, does Mr. Povondra realize what he has done. By letting van Toch in to see Bondy, he brought a flaming torch to a powder keg. The newt collection is not merely a hobby — it is the record of Povondra’s one disastrous achievement.

Like many before him, Povondra ends up resembling the monster he created. Earlier in the novel, newt intelligence is evaluated by an “expert commission.” There is “absolutely no need to overrate its intelligence,” since “in no respect does it exceed the intelligence of the average person of our time.” Its abstract, intellectual thought “consists precisely of ideas and opinions current at the present time,” and it says only “what it has heard or read.” Finally, and most damningly, “there can, of course, be no suggestion of independent thought.”

Mr. Povondra is not a bad man, but he is a thoroughly conventional man. He knows the world is not perfect, but then the world is not so bad, either. There are good people in it, after all. But those good people are precisely the problem, because they never make time to oppose the destructive drift of history. A man like Povondra mistakes civility for civilization; he has no fundamental objection to war or exploitation, but is disgusted by riots. As Čapek said about the rise of fascism, “It is not the revolt of the masses, but the mass failure of individuals.”

Readers of the novel have often wanted to believe that the newts represent the Nazis — creatures so deranged by abuse that they destroy the world. By this reckoning, Nazis, like the newts, are subhuman, savage creatures, who act senselessly on their impulses. They are an outrage on reasonable, scientific civilization. This ignores the fact that the newts are the victims of — and revolt against — technocratic rule. Under a regime of efficiency and low costs, nothing could be more irrelevant than fairness, equity, and justice. There are only bold conceptions and daring plans, elegant fixes and clever hacks. If a little suffering gets in the way, well — newts are newts.

It is probably naïve to cry out “never again!” in the face of evil. That pledge has been betrayed, year after year, since the death camps were liberated. War with the Newts is a hilarious satire, but the laughter chokes, the clown’s face is uncomfortably familiar. When it ends, the author has no one to talk to but himself, and he admits, “I don’t know how it goes on.” This is a shrug of despair, but also the whisper of possibility.

Čapek’s wife said that he was “a champion of the everyday,” and his apocalypse takes shape from the debris of daily life. Povondra is a more tragic character than G. H. Bondy because the humble doorman can see that a better world was possible; Bondy, the supposed genius of capital, turns out to be the slave of the forces he promised to control. If the newts, innocent and abused, managed to make a new world with the tools provided them by human civilization, then are we truly helpless?


Gregory Morrison lives in Virginia.

LARB Contributor

Gregory Morrison lives in Virginia.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!