The Enthusiast: In Praise of Karel Capek

Capek avoids all this by returning relentlessly to the newts, in all their hideous particularity. These are not dream-newts, or metaphor-newts. They are newt-newts. They stink, especially when their water needs changing. Their skin is oily. They get sick all the time.

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Capek’s books have an eerie resonance, a worrisome sense of never-expiring relevance.

And so the novel follows its own dictates, creates its own history. Capek is less concerned with what any particular group of humans have done than simply with what humans do. This gives the book an eerie resonance, a worrisome sense of never-expiring relevance. On previous readings it has seemed to me a book about animal rights. This time it read like an extended warning about artificial intelligence.

Another thing about that reading experience: “War With the Newts” may be the most strangely told novel I’ve ever read. It has a bouncy, slangy narrator who pops up regularly, but it consists mainly of primary documents: newspaper stories, minutes from a shareholders’ meeting, scientific papers. This occasionally slows the book’s narrative engine — someone will have to tell me what the half page of untranslated Japanese on page 168 contributes to the proceedings — but it also lends it a length-belying heft. By the end you feel less like you’ve read a novel than like you’ve been visited by a harried time-traveler bearing an overloaded thumb drive. Look at all this stuff that’s going to happen!

And so we close the book feeling just like a certain Mr. Povondra, who is, I’ve always believed, the novel’s secret heart. He’s a lowly doorman who happens, early on, to let Captain Van Toch in to speak with his businessman boss — one small domino in the sea of dominoes. But Povondra takes inordinate pride in having played a role in history — and we watch, over the course of the book, as that pride curdles into shame and then horror.

This is the power of “War With the Newts,” and why it deserves to be read so long as there is dry land upon which books are printed. It leaves us staring with bewilderment at the ways that we — with our tiny acts of greed and insensitivity and willful blindness (how exactly did that package of T-shirts come to cost $7.99? Oh forget it, grab two) — did all this. How our humble flaws could have contributed to the kinds of evils, the epic disasters, that we read about in history books. We thought the newts needed knives. We only taught them a few words. It all made perfect sense.

Karel Capek: A Starter Kit

Here’s a brief guide to the newt-free portions of Capek’s oeuvre.

‘The Gardener’s Year’

When he wasn’t dreaming up sci-fi dystopias, Capek was in the garden. This cheerful, exasperated journal is fun even for readers who don’t know a daisy from a dahlia.

‘R.U.R.’

Capek’s most popular work while he was alive (it’s where the word “robot” first appears), today it reads mostly like a rough draft of “War With the Newts.”

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