The War with the Newts, by Karel Čapek

Chapter 1

Mister Povondra Reads the Paper

There are people who collect stamps, and others who collect first editions. Mr. Povondra, the doorman at the house of G.H. Bondy, had long been unable to find any meaning in his life; he had been wondering for years whether to become interested in prehistoric graves or develop a passion for international politics; but one evening, without any sort of warning, he suddenly knew what he had so far been lacking, what would make his life worthwhile. Great events usually come without any sort of warning.

That evening Mister Povondra was reading the paper, Mrs. Povondra was darning Frank’s socks and Frank was pretending to study the tributaries on the left bank of the Danube. It was pleasantly quiet.

“I should have known,” muttered Mister Povondra.

“What should you have known?” asked Mrs. Povondra as she lifted a thread.

“About these newts,” said Father Povondra. “It says here that they’ve sold seventy million of them over the last three months.”

“That’s a lot, isn’t it!” said Mrs. Povondra.

“I should think so. In fact that’s an astonishing number, Mother. Just think, seventy million!” Mister Povondra turned to look at her. “They must have made a fortune selling all of them! And there’s all the work they’re doing now,” he added after thinking for a moment. “It says here that they’re claiming new land and building new islands everywhere at an amazing rate. - People can create as much new land as they want now, I should think. This is wonderful, Mother. I’m telling you, this is a bigger step forward than the discovery of America.” Mister Povondra thought about this for a while. “A new period of history, don’t you think? What shall we do, Mother, we’re living in great times.”

There was once more a long period of homely silence. Father Povondra suddenly started drawing harder on his pipe. “And just think, if it wasn’t for me it would never have happened!”

“What would never have happened?”

“All this business with the newts. This new period of history. If you look at it properly, it was actually me who put it all together.”

Mrs. Povondra looked up from the holes in the socks. “How’s that, then?”

“That it was me who let that captain in to see Mister Bondy on that day. If I hadn’t announced him there was no way the captain could ever have met Mister Bondy. If it hadn’t been for me, Mother, nothing could ever have come of it. Nothing at all.”

“Maybe this captain could have found someone else,” Mrs. Povondra objected.

Mister Povondra rattled indignantly on his pipe. “Now what do you know about that sort of thing? It’s only Mister G.H. Bondy who could do a thing like that. He has more foresight than I don’t know who. Anyone else would just have thought it was all madness or a confidence trick; but not Mister Bondy! He’s got a nose for these things, girl!” Mister Povondra considered this for a while. “That captain, what was his name again, Vantoch, he didn’t look much. Sort of fat old man, he was. Any other doorman would have told him he had no business knocking at the door, the master isn’t home, and that sort of thing; but, you listen, I had some sort of intuition or something. I announced him to Mister Bondy; I said to myself, Mister Bondy might be cross with me but I’ll take the responsibility on myself and I’ll announce him. I’ve always said a doorman has to be a good judge of character. There are times when someone rings at the door, and he looks just like a lord, and he turns out to be a refrigerator salesman. And there are other times when some fat old man turns up at the door, and look what can come of that. You need to be a good judge of character,” Father Povondra mused. “There you see, Frank, that’s the difference a man in a humble position can make. You take my example, always try your best to do your duty just like I’ve always done.” Mister Povondra nodded his head in pride and self congratulation. “I could have turned that captain away at the gate and saved myself the bother of going down the steps. Any other doorman wouldn’t have cared and shut the gate in his face, he would. And if he did he’d have ruined this fantastic step forward for mankind. Always bear in mind, Frank, if everyone in the world did his duty everything would be alright. And pay attention when I’m talking to you.”

“Yes, Dad,” muttered Frank discontentedly.

Father Povondra cleared his throat. “Pass me the scissors, Mother. I think I’d better cut this article out so that I’ve always got something to remind me.”

So it was that Mister Povondra started his collection of newspaper cuttings about the newts. Without his passion as a collector much of the material we now have would otherwise have been lost. He cut out and saved everything written about the newts that he could find; it should even be said that after some initial fumblings he learned to plunder the newspapers in his favourite café wherever there was mention of the newts and even developed an unusual, almost magical, virtuosity in tearing the appropriate article out of the paper and putting it in his pocket right under the nose of the head waiter. It is well known that all collectors are willing to steal and murder if that is what’s needed to add a certain item to their collection, but that is not in any way a stain on their moral character.

His life was now the life of a collector, and that gave it meaning. Evening after evening he would count and arrange his cuttings under the indulgent eyes of Mrs. Povondra who knew that every man is partly mad and partly a little child; it was better for him to play with his cuttings than to go out drinking and playing cards. She even made some space in the scullery for all the boxes he had made himself for his collection; could anything more be asked of a wife?

Even Mister Bondy was surprised at Mister Povondra’s encyclopaedic knowledge of everything concerning the newts which he showed at every opportunity. With some embarrassment, Mister Povondra admitted that he collected everything printed about the salamanders and let Mister Bondy see his boxes. G.H. Bondy kindly praised him for his collection; what does it matter that only great men can be so generous and only powerful people can give pleasure without it costing them a penny? It’s alright for those who are great. Mister Bondy, for instance, told the office of the Salamander Syndicate to send Mister Povondra all the cuttings to do with the newts that they did not need to keep in their archives, and lucky Mister Povondra, somewhat dismayed, received whole parcels of documents in all the languages of the world every day. And for documents in the Cyrillic alphabet, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese script, Bengali, Tamil, Javanese, Burmese or Taalik he was especially grateful. “When I think;” he said about it all, “without me it would never have happened!”

As we have already said, Mister Povondra’s collection saved much historic material concerning the whole story of the newts; but that, of course, does not mean to say it was enough to satisfy a scientific historian. Firstly, Mister Povondra had never received a specialist education as assistant in historic or archival methods, and he made no indication on his cuttings of the source, or the date, so that we do not know when or where each document was published. And secondly, faced with so much material piling up around him, Mister Povondra kept mainly the longest articles which he considered must be the most important, while the shorter reports were simply thrown into the coal scuttle; as a result, through all this period, remarkable few facts and reports were conserved by him. Thirdly, the hand of Mrs. Povondra played a considerable part in the matter; when she carefully filled up one of Mister Povondra’s boxes she would quietly and secretly pull out some of the cuttings and burn them, which took place several times a year. The only ones she spared were the ones that did not grow in number very fast, such as the cuttings printed in the Malabar, Tibetan or Coptic scripts; these remained more or less complete, although for certain gaps in our body of knowledge they are not of great value. This means that the material we have available concerning the history of the newts is very fragmented, like the land records of the eighth century A.D., or the selected writings of the poetess, Sappho; but some documents, here and there, did happen to survive about this phase of the great history of the world, and despite all the gaps we will do our best to summarise them under the title The Rise of Civilisation.

Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:34