War with the Newts

War with the Newts
By Karel Čapek
Trans. Ewald Osers
(Garrigue Press)

The best way for this 1936 Czech novel to find its readers is simply to describe the plot.

In an isolated corner of the South Seas, a Dutch captain discovers an unknown species of newt swimming in the shallow waters of a cove which the locals have always avoided. When the captain docks on a neighboring island, the newts seem fascinated by him and strangely able to decipher his signals. The adults, who are almost four feet tall, have a build something like human children, and when on land walk on their hind legs. From the captain’s instructions, the newts bring up some pearl oysters, and the creatures even prove able to use his blade to open up the shells themselves.

Despite these skills, the newts have remained trapped in the cove for untold centuries, because they cannot swim in the open ocean and their population is kept in check by the sharks who come by regularly to devour them.

A scheme occurs to the captain, based both on greed and what seems to him like compassion. With the help of a Czech industrialist, the captain begins to transport the newts out of their cove using a tank on his boat. He spreads them to other local shallows where they can thrive unmolested. In return, the newts collect the pearls that human divers have been unable to reach.

Without frequent visits from sharks, the newts multiply at an astonishing rate (one female can release hundreds of viable eggs). Soon, predictably, they have gathered so many pearls that the bottom drops out of the market. By this point, though, it has been discovered that the newts, given tools and a bare diet, are excellent at a variety of underwater work: excavating harbours, shaping and extending coastlines, and other tasks useful for modern nation states.

Under the direction of a syndicate, huge numbers of newts are now bred and shipped around the world. Countries with coastlines begin rapidly expanding their borders, dredging and reclaiming enormous stretches of land. Fantasies of new continents rising out of the waters begin to circulate – why, after all, should so much space in the oceans and seas be wasted when it could be put to man’s use?

Troubling moral questions arise as the worker newts show increasing levels of sophistication. Scientists maintain that newt behavior is mere mechanical imitation, but soon this becomes impossible to accept. Expert opinions in the novel are constantly, drastically wrong, but no one ever admits a mistake. Instead, people simply move forward into a world where everyone now believes the opposite of what was once maintained.

Things move so quickly that the reshaping of the planet is far along before people can even begin to absorb what has happened. Is it defensible to use newts as slaves? Might there be problems with changing the shape of coastlines? Do these creatures have souls? (Čapek’s invented reply for George Bernard Shaw: ‘They certainly have no soul. In this they resemble man.’) Newt questions are hotly debated, and these discussions change things a little (schools for newts, more humane working conditions) but the reformers are a few people rowing chaotically on a ship in full sail intent on moving in only one direction. Anxiety only reaches a noticeable level when there are newts blanketing the coastline of every nation, with tools and underwater explosives at their disposal.

A levee breaks in New Orleans, flooding the city. There are other accidents, new inundations, and a sense of things falling mysteriously apart, but no one suspects the newts are behind the problems until they release a statement. They bear humans no ill will; they simply have needs of their own.

No need for alarm. We have no hostile intentions towards you. We only need more water, more coasts, more shallows to live in. There are many of us. There’s no longer enough room for us on your coasts. That’s why we have to dismantle your continents. We shall turn them all into bays and islands. In this way the overall length of the world’s shoreline can be increased by a factor of five. We shall construct new shallows. We cannot live in the deep ocean. We shall need your continents as fill-in material.

The newts still require humans, of course, for surplus food, metals, and other land-based raw materials (perhaps they also find us charming, like pandas, and wouldn’t want to be entirely without us). When denied these materials, the newts are quite willing to use violence.

On one level, they have learned these habits from years of human tyranny, but the novel also hints at another explanation, the same one that Leopold Kohr would advance a few decades later in The Breakdown of Nations – once a certain critical mass of power has been reached, in terms of numbers and technological sophistication, power-hungry, expansionist behavior seems to develop almost spontaneously. It is the only way that massive systems can absorb the resources they need to keep functioning.

As with lemmings and arctic grass, the planet’s ecosystem in Čapek’s world has become so simplified (newts, humans, and the things they eat and need) that it can only be moving towards a pattern of seesawing crashes. Most countries, nevertheless, keep selling the newts weapons and food. It would, after all, be an economic catastrophe not to. Water begins to spread across every continent, and the remaining humans are pushed higher and higher into the mountains…

When War with the Newts was published in 1936, it was seen as a simple parable about the Nazi threat. As a writer in Czechoslovakia, which had existed precariously as a republic for less than two decades, Čapek was acutely conscious of this danger – but if the newts began as the Nazis in his imagination, they soon sent branches in all directions to become one of literature’s great protean symbols. At different points in the novel, for example, the newts call up both the people on whom the Nazis conducted their experiments and the torturers themselves. Every time the book threatens to become schematic, it slithers away and turns into something else.

I have ruined nothing by describing the plot. The delight of the novel lies in the little eddies and swirls around the narrative – from the mating rituals of the newts, which Čapek catalogs in a few magical pages, to the pamphlet welcoming newt dominion in which I saw a few of my own ideas perceptively mocked.

War with the Newts is not all sophisticated parodies of Spengler, though; in addition to being smart, it is also quite engagingly stupid, with jokes about Hollywood starlets and various farcical footnotes. Part of this is a canny narrative strategy where the book slowly lifts itself out of the frivolity in which prosperous humanity has been drowsing – but it is also something simpler: why not make a silly joke, even in your serious book, if one occurs to you? Unlike the largely humorless, almost oppressive greatness of writers who feel that they speak for nations – like, say, Thomas Mann, a contemporary who admired this novel – Čapek’s pages are lit with a kind of elfin spirit.

As I was reading this book, I kept being reminded of Leopold Kohr, that defender of little states who grew up a few hours from the Czech border. In both writers I recognized the same unwillingness to keep delight out of their pages, even when the ideas within point again and again to an impending collapse – the shared conviction, useful for sanity in bad times, that the most natural and becoming expression of the human face is a smile.

While reading his books, I find it worth remembering that Čapek was often in immense pain – he suffered from severe inflammation of the spine from the time he was a child. In the last story of Tales from Two Pockets, Čapek’s brilliant collection of mystery stories, a narrator who suffered in this way writes:

‘I’ve had such respect, such a reverence in me; everything seems more important to me now…each little thing and each human being, do you understand? Everything has enormous value. Whenever I see a sunset, I tell myself it was worth that incredible pain. And people, their work, their ordinary lives…all of it has value because of that pain. And I know it’s a terrible and unspeakable price to pay – but I truly believe that it isn’t some evil or punishment; it’s only pain, and it serves to…to give life this enormous worth–’ Mr Skrivanek stopped, not knowing how to go on.

As the country’s best-known writer, Čapek lobbied for the great powers to resist the Nazis’ demands for Czechoslovakia’s border territories. After Munich, he told a friend, ‘My world has died. I no longer have any reason to write.’

I can believe that, in a dark mood, he said this and meant it, but it wasn’t true. Čapek knew he would be arrested as soon as the Nazis invaded (he was, in fact, second on their list), but spent the days before the inevitable invasion trying to rescue his beloved garden from heavy autumn rains. He also worked for long stretches on his last, unfinished novel, which has never been translated into English, and spent late nights talking with friends. What else, after all, are you supposed to do?

Čapek caught a bad cold in the garden and didn’t bother to rest. A few days before the Nazis swept into his country, he died at home, spared an execution or a likely death in one of the camps – like this novel, one of literature’s small mercies.

If You Go Down to the Woods Today

For the last three years, after each of the Uncivilisation festivals we have run, we have heard one particular complaint: that there is just too much on the programme. Every year, people tell us that there were so many things on at the same time, all of which they wanted to see, that they had to choose what to miss rather than what to experience

Of course, this complaint is generally offered in a nicely supportive, tongue-in-cheek tone, but still we always promise ourselves that we will take it on board, not least because doing so would involve less work for us. And every year, we completely fail to do so. I’m afraid to report that for our fourth and last annual festival, in seven week’s time, we have failed again, in spectacular fashion.

My problem, as the main curator of the event, is that I keep coming across interesting people doing brilliant things, and I want to showcase them all. In my excitement, I tend to forget that I’m not running Glastonbury: I don’t have a site the size of a small city to play with, or a big team to make it happen, or a big budget.

What I do have, though, is the support of a big pool of talented people with a lot of goodwill towards the project, who are prepared to use their time and energy to put together some brilliantly creative expressions of their own visions. Speaking purely selfishly, the thing I value most about the Dark Mountain Project in its entirety is the opportunity it has given me to meet so many interesting people. I’ve made a lot of new friends, learned a lot of new things and had a lot of new experiences which I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

As we’ve already explained here, this is going to be our last annual festival (though by no means the end of Dark Mountain events). To celebrate the occasion, we have created a programme that is packed with a greater breadth of experiences than I think we have ever managed before.

Today, we have unveiled the full programme on the festival website: so have a look for yourself, and see if you agree. If you do, you can book tickets for the festival through the site as well. We won’t be selling tickets on the weekend itself, so they do need to be bought in advance.

What are my personal highlights? There’s a lot to choose from, but a few things certainly leap in my direction. I’m looking forward to hearing Orion editor Jennifer Sahn talk about the end of nature writing, and I want to make the session by novelist Margaret Elphinstone in which she talks about her novel set during the Mesolithic period. The Saturday night music session, curated by our friend Chris T-T, may well be the best musical lineup yet, and I’m particularly pleased that we’ve managed to get ourselves a stand-up comedian for the Saturday night. Yes, really.

What else? Well, for months I’ve been hearing Dougie Strang, curator of this year’s Parachute Stage, talking about this mysterious ‘roadkill charnel house’ he’s been creating, so I can’t wait to see what it looks like and what he does with it. Steve Wheeler’s ‘Rewilding Academy’, which runs throughout the weekend and includes outdoor activities like barefoot running and slow walking, sounds like just the ticket after spending months putting this thing together.

I’m particularly proud of the fact that we will be leaving a permanent memorial at the Sustainability Centre which will last long after our festivals are a memory: a ‘Life Cairn’, created in memory of extinct species around the world. We will be building this cairn in a public ceremony on the Saturday, and you can read more about it here in the first of a series of blogs which will be running over the next six weeks on the festival website. As well as posts introducing some of the themes and sessions at this year’s event, we’ll also be gathering together memories from previous years, celebrating the experiences we’ve shared as the festival has grown and changed. If you have stories, reflections or thoughts on festivals past and would like to share them on our festival blog, we’d love to hear from you.

Most of all though, I’ll just be grateful to be there, and to have had the opportunity to work with so many good people to put these festivals together. What comes next for Dark Mountain events? Well, my partner in crime Dougald will be hosting an open conversation on just this subject on the Saturday afternoon. He’ll be back with more about that soon, over on the festival blog. For now, have a look at what we’ve got planned, pass on the invitation to others you think will get the spirit of Dark Mountain, and I look forward to seeing many of you in August.

Uncivilisation 2013 takes place from  15th to 19th August at the Sustainability Centre, near Petersfield, Hampshire. The full festival programme can be found here. Festival tickets are available here.