The War with the Newts, by Karel Čapek

Chapter 11

The Author Talks to Himself

“Well you can’t just leave it like that, can you!” the authors internal voice declared.

Well, why not? asked the author, rather unsure of himself.

“You mean you’re going to let Mr. Povondra die like that?”

Well I don’t want to do it like that but, well, Mr. Povondra’s an old man after all, he must be well over seventy . . .

“And you’re going to leave him to die in a state of mental torture like that? Can’t you even say something like But Grandad, it’s not as bad as all that, the newts won’t destroy the world, mankind will save itself, just you wait and see? Surely there’s something you can do for him!”

I suppose I could get a doctor for him, the author suggested. Suppose the old man has had an attack of nerves; or at that age he could have had a lung inflammation, which, thanks be to God, he survives; and he could still sit little Marie on his knee and ask what she’s been learning in school. All the joys of old age, I could let the old man have all the joys of old age.

“Fine sort of joys of old age that is,” the internal voice sneered. “Hell hug the child with his ancient hands and all the time hell be thinking - thinking with horror - that one day shell be fleeing from the rush of water inexorably flooding the whole world; hell wrinkle his bushy brow and whisper in a voice of dread: That’s what I did, Marie, that’s what I did. Listen, do you really want to have the whole of mankind destroyed?”

The author frowned. Don’t ask me what I want. Do you think I wanted to see the continents where people live reduced to rubble, do you think I wanted it to end like this? That was just the logical course of events; what could I have done to stop that? I did everything I could; I gave people enough warning; what about that X, that was partly me. I warned them, don’t give the newts weapons and explosives, stop this vile trading in salamanders, and so on - and you saw how it all turned out. They all had a thousand good economic and political reasons why they couldn’t stop. I’m not a politician or a businessman; how am I supposed to persuade them about these things. What are we supposed to do; quite likely the world will collapse and disappear under water; but at least that will happen for political and economic reasons we can all understand, at least it will happen with the help of science technology and public opinion, with human ingenuity of all sorts! Not some cosmic catastrophe but just the same old reasons to do with the struggle for power and money and so on. There’s nothing we can do about that.

The internal voice was quiet for a while. “And don’t you feel sorry for mankind?”

Hold on, not so fast! Nobody’s saying the whole of mankind has to be destroyed. All the newts want is more shoreline where they can live and lay their eggs. Maybe what they’ll do is turn the continents into lots of long strings so that there’s as much shoreline as possible. What if there are still some people surviving on these strips of land? And there they can work metal and other things for the salamanders. As the newts can’t work with fire themselves, can they.

“So mankind will be put into the service of the newts.”

Yes, if that’s what you want to call it. They’ll simply be working in factories like they do now. They’ll just have different masters, that’s all. So that means it might not be so different after all . . .

“And don’t you feel sorry for mankind?”

Oh, just leave me alone, for Gods sake! What am I supposed to do about it? It is what the people wanted, don’t forget; they all wanted to have newts, they wanted commerce, industry and technology; civil authorities and military authorities, they all wanted it; even Povondra junior said so: it’s all of our faults. How do you think I could not feel sorry for mankind, anyway? And most of all, I felt sorry for them when I saw how, of their own free will and whatever the cost, how they were hurtling to their own perdition. It’d be enough to make anyone scream. He’d shout and raise his hands as if he’d seen a train going down the wrong track. And now it can’t be stopped. The newts are going to keep on multiplying on and on and on and they’ll go on demolishing the old continents on and on. Think what it was that Wolf Meynert said about the newts: that people would have to make way for them; and it would only be the salamanders that would create a world that was happy, unified and uniform . . .

“Oh come on, now! Wolf Meynert? Wolf Meynert was an intellectual. You think up something as vile and murderous and nonsensical as this and you think Wolf Meynert is going to save the world? Never mind, leave it. What do you think Marie might be doing now?”

Marie? I suppose she’s out playing somewhere. Don’t make a noise, they told her, Grandad’s asleep. But she doesn’t know what’s happening and it’s a very long time before . . .

“And what’s she actually doing?”

Don’t know. Maybe she’s trying to touch her nose with the tip of her tongue.

“There, you see? And you’d let something like a new Great Flood come along.”

Just stop it, will you. I can’t work miracles. What has to happen will happen! Things run along their inevitable course. And even that’s reassuring in its way: that everything that happens has its own necessity and follows certain rules.

“Couldn’t the newts be stopped in some way?”

No. There are too many of them. They’ve got to have room to live in.

“What about if they all died out in some way? Something like some kind of epidemic or degeneration . . . ”

No, that’s too cheap and easy. Why should nature have to put right what’s been done by man? See? - not even you think they could do anything to save themselves now. You basically think something will come along from somewhere else. I’ll tell you something: do you know who it is that still - even now when a fifth of Europe is already underwater - is still providing the newts with explosives and torpedoes and drills? Do you know who it is that’s working feverishly in all the laboratories, trying to find even more effective machines and materials for sweeping the world out of existence? Do you know who it is who’s lending the newts money, who it is who’s financing the end of the world, this new Flood?

“Yes, I know. All the factories. All the banks. All the countries in the world.”

Well then! If it was just newts against people it might be possible to do something; but when it’s people against people then there’s no way of stopping it, is there.

“Hold on, people against people! I’ve just thought of something. What if it was newts against newts?”

Newts against newts. How do you mean?

“Well what if for instance . . . if there are too many newts they might start squabbling about some tiny stretch of coast or some bay or something; then they can start fighting about bigger and bigger lengths of coast until they get into a big struggle about all the coastlines in the world, eh? Newts against newts! How’s that, wouldn’t that follow the natural course of events?”

Er, no, that wouldn’t work. You can’t have newts fighting with newts. That wouldn’t be natural. The newts are just one species.

“Well people are just one species too, aren’t they. And it’s never stopped them fighting with each other; all the same species and think of all the excuses for war they’ve used! It hasn’t had to be about space to live in, it’s been about power, prestige, influence, fame, resources and I don’t know what else! Why couldn’t the newts start fighting among themselves about something like prestige?”

Why would they do that? What do you think they’d get out of it?

“Nothing, except that some of them would get more coast to live on for a short time and a bit more power than the others. And then after a while it’d be the other way round.”

And why would some have more power than the others? They’re all the same, after all, they’re all newts; they’ve all got the same skeleton, they’re all as ugly as each other and all as mediocre as each other. What would make them start killing each other? Just tell me what you think it is that they might start fighting over.

“Just leave them to it and they’ll soon find something. If there’s one group living on the western shore and another on the eastern, they’ll probably start to despise each other in the name of West against East. And, here you’ve got the European salamanders while down there there are the African; it’d be strange if one lot didn’t want to be better than the others! So they can go and teach the others a lesson in the name of civilisation, or expansionism or I don’t know what: they’re bound to think of some kind of ideal or political reason which means that newts on one shore will have to go and beat up the newts on the other shore. The salamanders are as civilised as we are, don’t forget; they won’t be short of arguments to do with power or commercial interests or legal rights or culture of some such.”

And they’ve got plenty of weapons. Don’t forget they’re fantastically well armed.

“Yep, they’ve got plenty of weapons. And they could learn how it is that history’s made from the example given by people, couldn’t they!”

Hold on a sec., hold on. (The author jumps up and starts to pace excitedly around his study.) You’re right, it would be strange if they didn’t do it! I can see it now. You only need to look at the map of the world - where’s that map, I’ve got one here somewhere, where is it?

“There it is.”

Right. So here’s the Atlantic, there’s the Mediterranean, the North Sea. Europe here, America there - so this here is the cradle of culture and modern civilisation. And somewhere there is the sunken city of Atlantis . . .

“And now that’s where the newts are flooding Atlantis all over again.”

That’s it. And here is . . . the Pacific, the Indian Ocean. The ancient and mysterious Orient. The cradle of civilisation, as they say. And somewhere here, somewhere to the east of Africa, is the mythical island of Lemuria that was flooded. Sumatra, and a bit to the east of Sumatra . . .

“The little island of Tana Masa. The cradle of the newts.”

Exactly. And that’s where King Salamander, the spiritual leader of all the newts, has his court. Captain van Toch’s tapa-boys still live there, the original newts in the Pacific, and still half wild. So this is their Orient. The whole area is called Lemuria now, while the other area, the civilised, Europeanised or Americanised area where they use all the modern technology, that’s Atlantis. So Chief Salamander rules there as a dictator, the great conqueror, soldier and inventor, the Genghis Khan of the newts and destroyer of dry land. Now he will be a magnificent figure.

(” . . . but, do you think he’s really a newt?”)

(” . . . No. Chief Salamander is human. His real name is Andreas Schultze, and he took part in the Great War as an NCO somewhere.”)

(“So that’s it!”)

(Yes, that’s it, now you’ve got it.) So there’s Atlantis here, Lemuria there. They form two different groups because of geography, administration, cultural differences . . .

“ . . . and national differences. Don’t forget about national differences. The Lemurian salamanders speak Pidgin English, whereas the Atlantic ones speak Basic English.”

Yes, alright. As time goes by, the Atlantic newts go through the old Suez Canal into the Indian Ocean . . .

“Naturally, the classic way to the East.”

Right. And at the same time, the Lemurian newts press on around the Cape of Good Hope to the western coast of what had been Africa, asserting that the whole of Africa is part of Lemuria.


They use slogans such as, Lemuria for Lemurians, Out with the Foreigners, and so on. A gulf of mistrust develops between Atlanta and Lemuria and old enmities are revived. Their hatred becomes a matter of life and death.

“Or else they develop into different nations.”

Yes. The Atlantians despise the Lemurians and call them filthy savages; the Lemurians have a fanatical hatred for the Atlantian newts and see them as imperialists, western devils, and corruptors of the ancient purity of newtdom. Chief Salamander forces the Lemurians to grant concessions on their shores, supposedly in the interests of trade and civilisation. King Salamander, the noble patriarch of the Lemurians, has to grant these concessions against his will because they have less weapons. Things flare up in the mouth of the Tigris, not far from where Baghdad used to be: the native Lemurians attack the Atlantian colonists, killing two of their officers, supposedly because of some insult to their nation. And as a result of that . . .

“. . . it leads to war. Naturally.”

Yes, there’s a world war of newts against newts.

“In the name of culture and decency.”

And in the name of True Newtdom. In the name of Glory and Greatness. Their slogan is, It’s us or them! The Lemurians, armed with Malay kukries and daggers cut down the Atlantian intruders without mercy; but the Atlantian newts have been educated by Europeans and are more advanced and release poisonous chemicals and specially cultured bacteria into the Lemurian Sea and these weapons are so effective they poison all the oceans of the world. The sea is infected with artificially cultivated plague. And that’s it. All the newts die.

“All of them?”

All of them. Down to the very last one. They’ll become an extinct species. All that’ll be left of them will be the old fossil of Andrias Scheuchzeri in Öhningen.

“And what about the people?”

The people? Oh, yes, the people. Well, bit by bit they start to come back down from the hills back down to the coasts of what’s left of the continents; but the ocean will still be full of the stench of decomposing newts. The continents slowly grow back because of the silt deposited by rivers; the sea is pushed back bit by bit, and everything will be almost the same as it was before. There’s a new legend about a Great Flood sent by God to punish man for his sins. And there will be new legends about lands that disappeared under the water, and these lands will have been the cradle of human civilisation; and there will myths and legends about places like England and France and Germany . . .

“And then?”

. . . and then, I don’t really know.

This web edition published by:

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

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