The War with the Newts, by Karel Čapek

Chapter 12

The Salamander-Syndicate

President G.H. Bondy rang the bell and stood up.

“Gentlemen,” he began, “I have the honour of opening this extraordinary general meeting of the Pacific Export Company. I would like to welcome everyone here and thank them for the contribution they make.”

“I also,” he continued with some emotion, “have the sad duty of giving you some tragic news. Captain Jan van Toch is no longer with us. Our founder, if I can call him that, the father of the great idea of establishing commercial contact with thousands of islands in the far Pacific, our first captain and enthusiastic fellow worker has died. He passed away at the start of this year on board our ship, Šárka, not far from Fanning Island after suffering a stroke while engaged in his duty.” (Bet he made a Hell of a fuss, poor man, thought Mister Bondy fleetingly.) “Let us now all stand up in honour of this mans bright memory.”

All present stood up with a scraping and clattering of chairs and then remained in formal silence, all of them united in the hope that this general meeting wouldn’t last too long. (Poor Vantoch, my friend, thought G.H. Bondy with sincere emotion. What does he look like now? I expect they put him on a plank and threw him into the sea - what a splash that must have made! He was certainly a man of great honour, and had such blue eyes . . . )

“Thank you, gentlemen,” he added briefly, “for showing such piety in memory of my personal friend, Captain van Toch. I now invite our director, Mister Volavka, to inform you of the economic prospects for PEC over the coming year. None of these figures are yet certain but I hope you won’t expect them too have changed too much by the end of the year. Mister Volavka.”

“Good afternoon,” Mister Volavka began, and off he went. “The state of the pearl market is very unsatisfactory. Pearl production last year was nearly twelve times higher than in 1925, which itself was a very good year, but now the price of pearls has begun a catastrophic decline, by as much as sixty five percent. Management has decided, therefore, not to put any of this years pearl harvest on the market and they will be kept in storage until demand has risen again. Unfortunately, pearls went out of fashion last autumn, clearly because they had sunk so low in price. Our Amsterdam branch has, at present, more than two hundred thousand pearls in stock which, for the time being, are next to impossible to sell.

“At the same time,” Mister Volavka purred on, “there has been a marked reduction in the number of pearls found this year. Many fisheries have had to be abandoned because production was too low. Fisheries discovered just two or three years ago seem to be more or less exhausted. It is for this reason that the management had decided to turn its attention to other fruits of the sea such as coral and shellfish. There has been some success in stimulating the market for coral jewellery and other ornaments, but even here coral from Italy is achieving greater success than that from the Pacific. The management is also studying the possibility of intensive fishing in the deepest parts of the Pacific Ocean, where the main consideration is how to transport the fish from the Pacific to the European and American markets; results and findings so far are not very encouraging.

“On the other hand,” the director went on, his voice rising slightly, “our relatively high turnover suggests it might be profitable to diversify into other activities such as the export of textiles, enamel ware, wireless sets and gloves to the Pacific. islands. This business would be amenable to further development; although this year it is already showing a slight loss. there is of course no question of PEC paying any dividend to its shareholders at the end of the year; and the management would like to announce in advance that, on this occasion, it will renounce any commissions and bonuses . . . ”

There was a painful silence in the room. (It must have been like this on Fanning Island, thought G.H. Bondy. He died a true sailor, Vantoch. A good man. It’s a pity a decent chap like that had to die. And he wasn’t even that old . . . he was no older than I am . . . ) Dr. Hubka stood up to speak; and the minutes of the extraordinary general meeting of the Pacific Export Company continued thus:

Dr. Hubka asks whether the PEC might go into liquidation

G.H. Bondy replies that management has decided to wait for further suggestions in that matter.

Monsieur Louis Bonenfant urges that pearl production should have been done under the supervision of permanent representatives, continuously on site at fisheries, who would check whether pearls were being gathered with enough vigour and specialist skill.

Mr. Volavka, director, observes that this has been considered, but it was thought that this would result in excessive administration costs. There would need to be at least three hundred agents on the payroll; there was also the question of how these agents would themselves be supervised to ensure that all pearls found were passed on to the company.

M.H. Brinkelaer asks whether the newts can be relied on to pass on all the pearls found by them, and whether they do not dispose of them to somebody not connected with the company.

G.H. Bondy observes that this is the first time the newts have been mentioned in public. It has been a rule in this place, up till now, not to mention any details of how the gathering of pearls is carried out. He points out that it was for this reason that the inconspicuous title of Pacific Export Company chosen.

M.H. Brinkelaer asks whether it is unacceptable, in this place, to talk about matters which affect the interests of the company, and which moreover have long been known by the general public.

G.H. Bondy replies that it is not unacceptable, but it is unprecedented. He welcomes that fact that it is now possible to speak openly. In reply to Mister Brinkelaer’s first question, he can state that as far as he knows there is no reason to doubt the total honesty of the newts and their willingness to work at gathering pearls and corals. We must however reckon on known pearl fisheries becoming effectively exhausted in the near future. Where new fisheries are concerned, it was on a journey to find islands which are so far unexploited that our unforgettable colleague, Captain van Toch, died. It has so far been found impossible to find another man with the same experience and the same unshakeable honesty and love for his work to replace him.

Colonel D.W. Bright fully acknowledges the services rendered by the late Captain van Toch. He points out, however, that the captain, whose loss we all regret, did show too much concern for the comfort of the aforementioned newts. (Agreement)  It was not necessary, for instance, to provide the news with knives and other equipment of such high quality as the late van Toch did. There was no need, for instance, to give them so much food. There is scope for substantial reductions in the costs associated with the maintenance of the newts and in this way raise the net income of the company. (Lively applause)

Vice-president J. Gilbert agrees with Colonel Bright, but points out that that was not possible while Captain van Toch was still alive. Captain van Toch insisted that he had his personal obligations towards the newts. There were various reasons why it would have been inadvisable to even suggest neglecting the old mans wishes in this respect.

Kurt von Frisch asks whether the newts could not be employed in some other way that might be more profitable than pearl fishing. Their natural, one could say beaver-like, talent for building weirs and other underwater constructions should be taken into account. They could perhaps be put to use in deepening harbours, building piers and performing other technical tasks underwater.

G.H. Bondy states that management is actively engaged in this consideration; there are some great possibilities in this respect. He states that the company now owns nearly six million newts; if we consider that one pair of newts might have a hundred tadpoles in any given year the company could well have three hundred million newts at its disposal by this time next year; in ten years the number would be astronomical. G.H. Bondy asks what the company intends to do with this enormous number of newts, when the newt farms are already over-populated and, because of a lack of natural foodstuffs, it has been found necessary to feed the newts with copra, potatoes, maize and similar.

K. von Frisch asks whether the newts are edible.

J. Gilbert: not at all. Nor do their hides have any use.

M. Bonenfant asks management what they now intend to do.

G.H. Bondy (standing): “Gentlemen, we convened this extraordinary general meeting in order publicly to draw your attention to the extremely unfavourable prospects of our company which - I hope you will allow me to remind you of this - has proudly paid returns of twenty to twenty-three percent over recent years as well as having well funded reserves and low costs. We stand now at a turning point; the way of doing business which has proved itself so well over recent years is now practically at an end; we have no choice but to find new ways.” (Loud applause)

“I could even say it is a sign from fate that our excellent friend and captain, J. van Toch, left us just at this time. Our romantic, beautiful - I could even say absurd - trading in pearls was always closely connected with him. I consider this to be the closing chapter in our business; it had its, so to speak, exotic charm, but it was never suitable for modern times. Gentlemen, pearls could never be the concern of a large company which needs to be cohesive horizontally and vertically. For me personally, this affair with pearls was never more than a minor distraction.” (Discomfiture) “Yes gentlemen; but a minor distraction which brought substantial profits to me and to you. At the start of our business these newts also had a kind of, shall I say, charm of the new. Three hundred million newts will not have much charm about them.” (Laughter)

“I spoke earlier about finding new ways of moving forward. While my good friend, Captain van Toch, was still alive there was no question of giving our affairs any other character than that which could be called the Captain van Toch style.” (Why not?) “Because, gentlemen, I have too much good taste to mix one style with another. I would say that the style of Captain van Toch was that of a romantic adventurer. It was the style of Jack London, Joseph Conrad and others of that ilk. Old-fashioned, exotic, colonial, almost heroic. I do not deny that he charmed me with this style of his, but since his death we no longer have the right to continue with an epic tale which is adventurous and juvenile. We have before us not a new chapter but a new conception, gentlemen, it is a job for an imagination which is new and fundamentally different.” (You speak as if this were all just a story in a novel!) “Yes, gentlemen, you are quite right. I take an artists interest in business. Without a sense of art it is impossible ever to think of something new. We need to be poets if we are to keep the world moving.” (Applause)

G.H. Bondy bows. “Gentlemen, I am sorry to be closing this chapter, the chapter we might call the van Toch era; an era in which we made use of the child-like and adventurous side that we all have. The time has come now to bring this fairy story of pearls and coral fisheries to an end. Sinbad is dead, gentlemen. And the question is, what now?” (Well that’s just what were asking!) “Alright gentlemen: please take out pen and paper and write this down. Six million. Have you got that down? Multiply that by fifty. That makes three hundred million, doesn’t it. Multiply that by another fifty. Now that’s fifteen thousand million, yes? And now gentlemen, please be so kind as to tell me what, in three years time, were going to do with fifteen thousand million newts. How are we to employ them, how are we going to feed them, and so on.” (Let them die, then!) “Yes, but don’t you think that would be a pity? Have you not thought that every new newt is a new business opportunity, a new unit of labour waiting to be put to use? Gentlemen, with six million newts we can still make business of some sort. With three hundred million it will be somewhat harder. But gentlemen, fifteen thousand million newts is something quite inconceivable. The newts will devour the company. That is how it is.” (And you will be responsible! It was you who started all this business with the newts!)

G.H. Bondy raises his head. “And I fully accept that responsibility, gentlemen. Anyone who wishes to can dispose of his shares in the Pacific Export Company immediately. I am quite willing to pay for them . . .” (How much?) “Their full value.” (Consternation.  Chairman calls for ten minute pause)

After pause, H. Brinkelaer speaks. Expresses pleasure at high rate of increase of newts, and with it the rate of increase of company assets. But, gentlemen, it would of course be sheer madness to breed them without regard for the need; suggests on behalf of shareholders that if the company cannot find suitable work for them itself they should be simply sold as working force to whoever wishes to undertake any work on or under water. (Applause) The cost of feeding a newt is no more than a few centimes; if a pair of newts is sold for, say, a hundred francs, and the working life of a newt is no more than, say, one year, then any investor would see a very good return. (Signs of agreement)

J. Gilbert indicates that newts reach ages much higher than one year; we do not yet have enough experience with them to say how long they actually live.

H. Brinkelaer modifies his suggestion; the price of a pair of newts should be set at three hundred francs.

S. Weissberger asks what sort of work the newts are actually capable of.

Mr. Volavka, director: with their natural instincts and their exceptional technical training, the newts would be especially suited to the construction of weirs, embankments and breakwaters, to the deepening of harbours and channels, clearing shallow waters and removal of sediments, and to freeing water channels; they could reinforce and maintain shorelines, extend sea defences, and so on. For work of this sort they would operate in groups of hundreds or thousands of individuals; in projects on this large a scale, where not even modern plant and machinery could be considered, there would be no other way of performing the task at such low cost. (Quite right! Excellent!)

Dr. Hubka objects that by selling newts that might find new places to reproduce the company might lose its monopoly on the animals. He suggests the newts be merely rented out to businesses engaged in water works as properly trained and qualified working units with the stipulation that any tadpoles created will continue to be the property of PEC.

Mr. Volavka, director, points out that it would not be possible to supervise millions or even thousands of millions of newts in the water, let alone their tadpoles; many newts have already been misappropriated for zoos and menageries.

Col. D.W. Bright: Only male newts should be sold or rented out so that they would not be able to reproduce outside the farms and incubators belonging to the company.

Mr. Volavka, director: It is not possible to assert that newt farms are the property of the company. A piece of the sea floor cannot be owned or rented. The question of who the newts belong to, if for instance they are living in the surface waters of Her Majesty the Queen of Holland, is very unclear, legally speaking, and could lead to many disputes. (Unease.) In most cases we don’t even have any guaranteed fishing rights; in fact, gentlemen, we established our newt farms in the Pacific islands without any legal right to do so. (Growing unease.)

J. Gilbert, responding to Colonel Bright, says that experience so far showed that male newts kept in isolation become lethargic and unwilling to work; they are lazy, apathetic and often die from stress.

Von Frisch asks whether newts to be sold could not be castrated or sterilised beforehand.

J. Gilbert: That would incur too many costs; there simply is no way for us to prevent newts from procreating after they have been sold.

S. Weissberger, asks, as a member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, that if any newts are to be sold it should be done humanely and in a way that would not offend people’s sensibilities.

J. Gilbert thanks him for raising the subject; it is understood that the newts would be caught and transported only by trained personnel under proper supervision. It is not, of course, possible to be sure how the newts will be treated by the businesses that buy them.

S. Weissberger declares that he is satisfied with the assurances given by Vice-President Gilbert. (Applause.)

G.H. Bondy: “Gentlemen, we have, from now on, to abandon any idea of having a monopoly on newts. Unfortunately, under current regulations, we are not able to take out a patent on them.” (Laughter.) “We can and must do business with newts in a way that’s fundamentally different from the way we have been up till now; and it is essential that our approach to business is fundamentally different and on a far bigger scale.” (Hear hear!) “And there are many things, gentlemen, that need to be agreed beforehand. Management suggest the creation of a new, vertically organised trust under the name Salamander Syndicate. Besides our company, the members of the newt syndicate would consist of certain major companies and strong financial groups; there is one company, for instance, that would be engaged in manufacturing special, patented metal tools for the newts . . .” (MEAS, you mean?) “Yes, that’s right, MEAS is the company I have in mind. There will also be a cartel of companies in the field of chemicals and foodstuffs, manufacturing cheap, patented feed for the newts; there will be a group of transport companies, making use of experience already gained to patent special hygienic tanks for transporting the newts; a block of insurance companies to cover the newts against risk of death or injury during transportation or at the workplace; other interested concerns in the fields of industry, export and finance which, for legal reasons, we are not able to mention by name at this stage. Suffice it to say, gentlemen, that at the start of business the syndicate would have four hundred millions pounds sterling at its disposal.” (Excitement) “This file, my friends, is already full of contracts and all they need now is a signature for the creation of one of the biggest commercial organisations of modern times. All that is asked of you by the management, gentlemen is that you give them the authority to establish this gigantic concern whose task will be to cultivate and employ the newts in the best possible way.” (Applause and voices of protest).

“Gentlemen, please bear in mind the advantages a collaboration of this sort could bring. The Newt Syndicate would provide more than just newts, it would also provide equipment and food for the newts such as maize, carbohydrates, beef fat and sugar for thousands of millions of well fed animals; then there would be transport, insurance, veterinary needs and everything at the lowest rate guaranteed for us if not by a monopoly then at least by being in a dominant position over any other potential rival that might want to deal in newts. Just let them try it, gentlemen; they won’t be in competition with us for long.” (Bravo!) “But that’s not all. The Newt syndicate would provide all kinds of building material for underwater work performed by the newts; for this reason we have the support also of heavy industry, cement works, the stone and timber industries . . .” (You still don’t know how the newts are going to work!) “Gentlemen, at this very moment there are twelve thousand newts at work in Saigon building new docks, basins and jetties.” (You didn’t tell us about that!) “No. This is our first large scale experiment, and it has been a complete success, meeting all our hopes and expectations. Without any hint of a doubt, the future belongs to newts.” (Enthusiastic applause)

“And that’s not all, gentlemen. There are still many more functions for the Newt Syndicate to perform. the salamander syndicate will seek out work for millions of newts all round the world. They will provide the plans and the ideas for subjugating the oceans. It will disseminate ideas of Utopia, dreams that are gigantic, projects for new coastlines and shipping lanes, causeways that will join continents, whole chains of artificial islands for journeys to new lands in the middle of the oceans. That is where the future of mankind lies. Gentlemen, four fifths of the Earths surface is covered by sea; there’s no denying that that is too much; the surface of our world, the map of sea and land, must be corrected. We are giving the world the workers of the sea, gentlemen. Well no longer be doing it in the style of Captain van Toch with his adventurous tales of pearls and treasure but by the tried and tested means of honest toil. We can be mere shopkeepers or we can be more creative; but if we fail to think in terms of oceans and continents we won’t have fulfilled out promise. Somebody earlier on mentioned the difficulty of selling a pair of newts. I would rather we thought in terms of thousands of millions of newts, of millions and millions of workers, of moving the crust of the Earth itself, a new Genesis and a new geological age. We have today the chance to talk of a new Atlantis, of ancient continents extending further and further out into the seas, a new world created by man himself. Forgive me, gentlemen, if all this seems Utopian, but we are indeed stepping out into a Utopia. We have already entered in, my friends. All we need to do is work out what technical jobs need to be done by the newts . . .” (And the economics!)

“Yes. The economics of all this are especially important. Gentlemen, our company is too small to be able to make use of thousands of millions of newts by itself; we don’t have the money for it nor the influence. If the map of the seas and the land is to be changed we need also to have the greatest powers in the world taking an interest. But that can be left till later; there is still no need to name what high places have already shown positive interest in the syndicate. But for now, all I ask of you, gentlemen, is that you do not lose sight of the boundless scope of the affair you are about to vote on.” (Enthusiastic and sustained applause. Excellent! Bravo!)

It was nonetheless necessary, before the vote was held, to promise that shares of the Pacific Export Company would pay a dividend of at least ten percent this year from its reserves. The vote was then eighty-seven percent in favour of the Newt Syndicate and only thirteen percent against. As a result the management’s proposal was accepted. The Salamander Syndicate came into life. G.H. Bondy was congratulated.

“That was a very good speech, Mister Bondy,” old Sigi Weissberger praised. “Very good. And please, tell me, how did you get the idea?”

“How?” G.H. Bondy replied absent mindedly. “Actually, to tell you the truth Mister Weissberger, it was all because of old van Toch. He was always so fond of his newts - what would the poor man have said if we just let those tapa-boys of his die out or be killed?”

“Tapa-boys? What do you mean, tapa-boys?”

“All those vile newts. At least they’ll be treated decently now that they’re worth money. And we might as well use them to create a utopia as the horrors are no good for anything else.”

“I don’t see what you mean,” Mr. Weissberger said. “Have you ever actually seen one of the newts, Mr. Bondy? I don’t really know what they’re like. What do they look like?”

“I’m afraid I really can’t tell you, Mr. Weissberger. How should I know what a newt looks like? Do you think I have the time to bother about what they look like? I’m just glad we’ve got the Newt Syndicate sorted out.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52