The War with the Newtsby Karel Capek, David Wyllie (Translator)
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Karel Čapek's brilliant comic and satirical novel of 1936 deals with the discovery of a sentient race of newts or salamanders, and their subsequent transition from fairground sideshow to forced labour to ferocious enemies of the human race. Along the way he pokes fun at a whole range of targets, from the superficiality of Hollywood to the arrogance of scientists. He also deals with serious subjects such as racism, imperialism and exploitation, and is positively prophetic on the threat of expansionism and the folly of appeasement. This handsome new edition from Benediction Classics uses the acclaimed 2002 translation from the Czech by David Wyllie, with original illustrations.
“A bracing parody of totalitarianism and technological overkill, one of the most amusing and provocative books in its genre.” —Philadelphia Inquirer
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War with the Newts
By Karel Capek, Ewald Osers
Catbird PressCopyright © 1936 Karel Capek
All rights reserved.
The Eccentricity of Captain van Toch
If you were to look for the little island of Tana Masa on a map you would find it right on the equator slightly to the west of Sumatra. But if you asked Captain J. van Toch of the Kandong Bandoeng what kind of place this Tana Masa was, the place off which he had just dropped anchor, he would curse for a while and then he would tell you that it was the filthiest hole in all the Sunda Islands, even more miserable than Tana Bala and at least as lousy a place as Pini or Banjak; that the only, if you'll excuse me, human being living there -disregarding, of course, those lousy Bataks - was a drunken agent, a cross between a Cuban and a Portuguese and an even greater thief, heathen and swine than a pure-bred Cuban and a pure-bred white man combined; and if there was something really lousy in this world then it was this lousy life on this lousy Tana Masa, yessir. Whereupon you, might cautiously inquire why in that case he had dropped his lousy anchor, just as if he was going to stop here for three lousy days, he'd just snort irritably and mutter something to the effect that the Kandong Bandoeng would not have sailed here just for some lousy copra or palm oil, stands to reason, doesn't it?, and anyway what business is it of yours, sir?, but I've got my damned orders, sir, and will you kindly mind your own damned business. And he'd curse as richly and colourfully as you'd expect from a sea captain who was getting on a bit but was still in good shape for his years.
But if instead of asking such nosy questions you left Captain van Toch to grumble and curse to himself you'd probably learn a lot more. Can't you see that he needs to let off steam? Just let him be and his irritability will simmer down on its own. 'It's like this, sir,' the captain would burst out, 'those fellows back home in Amsterdam, those damned Jews at the top, suddenly say to you: pearls, that's what it is about, my man, you look out for pearls. People apparently go nuts over pearls and suchlike.' Here the captain expectorated angrily. 'Sure thing, put your money into pearls! That's because you people are always wanting to have wars or suchlike. Worried about your money, that's what it is. What's called a crisis, yessir.' Captain van Toch hesitated for a moment as to whether to embark on a discourse of the economy with you; after all, nobody talked about anything else these days. Except that out here, off Tana Masa, it's a little too hot and enervating for that. So Captain van Toch just waved his hand and grumbled: 'Easily said: pearls! In Ceylon, sir, they cleared them clean out five years ago and in Formosa they've put a ban on pearl-fishing. - Why then, Captain van Toch, you'd better find some new fishing grounds. You just sail to those damned little islands, for all you know you may find whole banks of shells there - .' The captain contemptuously blew his nose into a sky-blue handkerchief. 'Those rats back in Europe imagine you can still find something here that nobody else knows about! Christ Almighty, those nitwits! For two pins they'd have made me peer up the snouts of those Bataks in case they snot up pearls! New fishing grounds, my arse! There's a new brothel in Padang, for sure, but new pearl-fishing grounds? Why sir, I know these islands here like the back of my hand ... all the way from Ceylon to that lousy Clipperton Island ... If anyone thinks he can find something here to make money out of, well, good luck to him! I've been sailing these waters for thirty years and now those idiots want me to discover something new here!' Captain van Toch almost choked under this insulting demand. 'Why don't they send out some greenhorn, he'd discover things for them enough to make their eyes pop - but to expect Captain van Toch ... well, sir, I ask you! In Europe you might still find something or other, but here? Surely people come down here only to sniff around for something they can guzzle up, or not even guzzle up, for something to buy and sell. Why sir, if there was anything left in these lousy tropics that was worth a brass farthing you'd find three agents standing over it and waving a dirty handkerchief to ships of seven nationalities to heave to. That's how it is, sir. I know these parts better than Her Majesty's Colonial Office, if you'll pardon me.' With an effort Captain van Toch struggled with his righteous indignation and after some further storming managed to master it. 'See that pair of lazy bastards there? Those are pearl fishers from Ceylon, may God forgive me, Singhalese as the Lord made them - though why he should have done so beats me. That's what I carry now, sir, and wherever I come across a stretch of coastline that hasn't got a notice Agency or Bata Corporation or Customs Office I drop that lot into the water to rout out shells. That shorter rascal can dive to a depth of forty fathoms; over there on Princes Island he came up from forty-five fathoms with the handle of a film camera, yessir, but as for pearls - nope! Not a trace! Useless scoundrels, those Singhalese. That's the kind of lousy job I've got, sir: making out I'm buying palm oil and all the time searching for new pearl-fishing grounds. Next thing they'll expect me to do is discover some virgin continent, what? That's no job for the honest master of a merchantman, no sir. J. van Toch's not one of your damned adventurers, sir. No sir.' And so on; the sea is vast and the ocean of time is boundless: spit into it and it won't rise, or rant at your fate but you won't change it; and so, after many preliminaries and diversions, we've at last reached the point where Captain J. van Toch of the Dutch ship Kandong Bandoeng with a deep sigh and a curse climbs down into a boat to step ashore at the kampong on Tana Masa, in order to discuss a few business matters with the drunken cross between a Cuban and a Portuguese.
'Sorry, Captain,' finally said the cross between a Cuban and a Portuguese, 'but there are no pearl-oysters here on Tana Masa. Those filthy Bataks,' he said with infinite loathing, 'will even eat jellyfish, they're more at home in the water than on dry land, the women here stink of fish, you've no idea - what was I going to say? Ah yes, you were asking about the women.'
'And isn't there any stretch of shore,' the captain inquired, 'where those Bataks don't get into the water?'
The cross between a Cuban and a Portuguese shook his head. 'None, sir. Except of course Devil Bay, but that's no use to you.'
'Because ... no one's allowed there, sir. Top you up, Captain?'
'Thanks. Are there any sharks there?'
'Sharks and other things/ the half-breed muttered. 'It's a bad spot, sir. The Bataks wouldn't like to see anyone going there.'
'There are devils there, sir. Sea devils.'
'What's a sea devil? A fish?'
'Not a fish,' the half-breed countered evasively. 'Simply a devil, sir. A deep-sea devil. The Bataks call them tapa. Tapa. They're said to have their town down there, those devils. Top you up?'
'And what does ... this sea devil look like?'
The cross between a Cuban and a Portuguese shrugged. 'Like a devil, sir. I saw one once - that is, only his head. I was in my boat coming back from Cape Haarlem ... and suddenly it pushed its ugly mug out of the water right in front of me.'
'Well? And what did it look like?'
'It's got a pate ... like a Batak, sir, but bald as a coot.'
'You sure it wasn't a Batak?'
'Quite sure, sir. No Batak would ever go into the water at that spot. Besides ... it blinked at me with its lower lids, sir.' The half-breed shivered with horror. 'With its lower lids which came up right over its eyes. That's a tapa.'
Captain J. van Toch twisted his glass of palm wine between his fleshy fingers. 'Sure you weren't drunk, eh? You weren't sloshed?'
'Of course I was, sir. Otherwise I wouldn't have rowed out there. The Bataks don't like people to ... to disturb the devils.'
Captain van Toch shook his head. 'Come on, man, no such thing as devils. And if there were they'd look like Europeans. Probably was some fish or something.'
'A fish,' the cross between a Cuban and a Portuguese stammered, 'a fish hasn't got any hands, sir. I'm not a Batak, sir, I went to school in Badjoeng ... perhaps I can still recite the Ten Commandments and other scientifically proved doctrines; an educated person can tell the difference between a devil and an animal. You ask the Bataks, sir.'
'Nigger superstitions, man,' the captain declared with the jovial superiority of the educated. 'Scientifically it's nonsense. Surely a devil can't live in water. What would he be doing there? Shouldn't listen to natives' gossip, man. Somebody called the bay Devil Bay and the Bataks have been afraid of it ever since. That's the long and the short of it,' said the captain, bringing his massive palm down on the table. 'There's nothing there, man; that's scientifically evident, isn't it?'
'Yes, sir,' agreed the half-breed who had been to school in Badjoeng. 'But no man in his right senses has any business in Devil Bay.'
Captain J. van Toch turned florid. 'What?' he shouted. 'You filthy Cuban, you think I'm scared of your devils? We'll see about that,' he said, rising to the full majesty of his ample fourteen stone. 'I'm not wasting my time here with you when I have business to attend to. But remember one thing: there are no devils in the Dutch colonies; if there are any at all, then they are in the French colonies. Yes, there might well be some there. And now get me the mayor of this lousy kampong.'
The dignitary referred to was not too difficult to find: he was squatting next to the half-breed's shop, chewing sugar cane. He was a naked elderly gentleman, and a lot thinner than mayors as a rule come in Europe. A short way behind him, keeping an appropriate distance, squatted the entire village, complete with women and children, evidently in expectation of being filmed.
'Now listen to me, man,' Captain van Toch addressed him in Malay (he might equally well have addressed him in Dutch or in English since the venerable old Batak did not understand a word of Malay and the whole of the captain's speech had to be interpreted into the Batak dialect by the cross between a Cuban and a Portuguese; but for some reason or other the captain regarded the Malay language as more suitable). 'Now listen to me, man, I need a few big strong brave fellows to go hunting with me. Understand? Hunting.'
The half-breed translated and the mayor nodded his head to indicate he understood. He thereupon turned to his wider audience and delivered a speech to them with obvious success.
'The chief says,' the half-breed interpreted, 'that the whole village will go hunting with the tuan captain, where the tuan wishes.'
'There you are. You tell them we'll go shell-fishing in Devil Bay.'
There followed about a quarter of an hour of excited discussion, with the whole village taking part, especially the old women. Eventually the half-breed turned to the captain. 'They're saying, sir, one can't go to Devil Bay.'
The captain grew red in the face. 'And why not?'
The half-breed shrugged his shoulders. 'Because of the tapa-tapa there. The devils, sir.'
The captain's face was beginning to turn puce. 'Tell them if they won't come ... I'll knock all their teeth in ... I'll tear their ears off ... I'll hang them ... and that I'll burn their lousy kampong down, d'you understand?'
The half-breed translated faithfully, whereupon another lively consultation took place. In the end the half-breed turned to the captain. 'They're saying, sir, they'll go and complain to the police in Padang that the tuan has threatened them. There are laws about this. The mayor says he won't leave it at that.'
Captain J. van Toch began to turn blue. 'Tell him then,' he roared, 'that he is ...' And he spoke for a good eleven minutes without drawing breath.
The half-breed translated as much as his vocabulary permitted, and after another prolonged but businesslike consultation among the Bataks he interpreted to the captain: 'They're saying, sir, that they might be willing to drop legal proceedings if the tuan captain paid a fine to the local authorities. They say,' here he hesitated, '200 rupees; but that's a bit steep, sir. Why not offer them five.'
Captain van Toch's colour began to break up into russet blotches. At first he offered to massacre all Bataks the world over, then he came down to 300 kicks, and finally he would have settled for stuffing the mayor for the Colonial Museum in Amsterdam. The Bataks on their part came down from 200 rupees to one iron pump with a wheel and in the end insisted that the captain should, by way of a fine, give the mayor a petrol cigarette lighter. ('Give it to them, sir,' the cross between a Cuban and a Portuguese pleaded, 'I've got three lighters in stock but they've got no wick.') Thus peace was restored on Tana Masa but Captain J. van Toch realised that the honour of the white race was now at stake.
In the afternoon a boat put off from the Dutch ship Kandong Bandoeng: it contained, more particularly, Captain van Toch, a Swede called Jensen, an Icelander called Gudmunson, a Finn called Gillemainen and two Singhalese pearl-fishers. The boat made straight for Devil Bay.
At three o'clock, just as the low tide was turning, the captain was standing on the beach, the boat was bobbing up and down about a hundred yards offshore to keep a look-out for sharks, and the two Singhalese divers, each with a knife in hand, were waiting for the signal to jump into the water.
'OK, you first,' the captain ordered the taller one of the naked figures. The Singhalese jumped in, waded a few steps and disappeared under the surface. The captain glanced at his watch.
Four minutes and twenty seconds later a brown head broke surface some sixty yards to the left; in a curiously desperate and at the same time paralysed rush the Singhalese scrambled up on the rocks, in one hand his knife for cutting the shells loose and in the other a pearl-oyster.
The captain scowled. 'What's the matter?' he said sharply.
The Singhalese was still climbing over the boulders, gasping noisily with fright.
'What's up?' yelled the captain.
'Sahib, sahib,' the Singhalese managed to utter, sinking down on the shore and letting his breath out in gasps. 'Sahib ... sahib ...'
'Djins,' the Singhalese moaned. 'Devils, sir. Thousands and thousands of devils!' He dug his fists into his eyes. 'Nothing but devils, sir!'
'Let's see that shell,' the captain ordered. He opened it with a knife. It contained a small clear pearl. 'This is all you found?'
The Singhalese took out three more shells from the bag slung around his neck. 'There are shells there all right, sir, but those devils are guarding them ... They were looking at me as I cut them loose ...'His straggly hair bristled in horror. 'Not at this spot, sahib!'
The captain opened the shells; two were empty but the third contained a pearl the size of a pea, as round as a drop of mercury. Captain van Toch studied in turn the pearl and the Singhalese who was crouching in a heap on the ground.
'You, boy,' he said hesitantly, 'you wouldn't like to go down there once more?'
The Singhalese shook his head speechlessly.
Captain van Toch felt a strong itch on his tongue to blaspheme. But to his surprise he found that he was talking quietly and almost gently: 'Don't be afraid, boy. And what do those ... devils ... look like?'
'Like little children,' the Singhalese breathed. 'They've got a tail and they are this tall,' and he indicated about four feet from the ground. 'They stood all around me and watched what I was doing there ... there was a whole ring of them around me ...' The Singhalese began to tremble. 'Sahib! Not here, sahib!'
Captain van Toch reflected. 'And tell me, do they blink their lower lids, or what?'
'I don't know, sir,' the Singhalese croaked. 'There's ... ten thousands of them there!'
The captain looked round for the other Singhalese. He was standing some 150 yards off, casually waiting with his arms folded over his shoulders. It is true, of course, that when a chap is naked he's got nowhere to put his hands except on his own shoulders. The captain made a silent signal to him and the short Singhalese jumped into the water. Three minutes and fifty seconds later he emerged again and with slippery hands slithered up the rocks.
Excerpted from War with the Newts by Karel Capek, Ewald Osers. Copyright © 1936 Karel Capek. Excerpted by permission of Catbird Press.
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Karel Capek is one of the great Czechoslovak writers of the twentieth century.
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