Allegorical Connections – “War With The Newts”

In a literature class I am taking, we are reading the novel “War With The Newts” by Czech author Karel Capek. The novel has an evident allegorical plot; the main motifs are imperialism and eugenics. In the novel, a Czech captain Vantoch discovers a population of newts off the coast of the Philippines. The native population refers to the newts as devils, but Vantoch discovers that they are intelligent beings, capable of learning skills and following orders. Thus, he trains them to fetch pearls from the sea; in return he arms them with knives and weapons to fight off sharks. Eventually, Vantoch begins to sail all over the world with these newts, making money off the pearls that they catch. The newts begin springing up all over the globe, bringing fright and excitement to scientists, media, and people of all nations. The newts are quite intelligent beings: they can talk, read, do math – everything that the common man can do. However, scientists are not impressed, as they do not exceed human intelligence in any way. On the other hand, the scientists are extremely interesting in the newts anatomy, reproduction, and re-growth systems. They perform all sorts of grueling experiments on the newts, such as cutting off their limbs and testing them with chemicals. In addition, they keep them in inhumane conditions, and many of them die. When Captain Vantoch dies, his advisers and business partners decide to expand and take over Vantoch’s newt population; they begin selling them to investors all over the world. They exploit the newts, marketing them as docile subjects that will do any task the are commanded to do. These businessmen have dreams of building new continents and expanding the prestige of the human race with the labor of the newts. Meanwhile, on the mainlands (which is Western Europe), debates are springing up about the treatment and rights of the newts. Feminist groups argue that the newts deserve proper education and set up a school for them. Others, however, argue that they disrupt the land and should be killed off.

Though I have not finished this book yet (sorry for the lack of closure), it reminds me a lot of what both McClintock and Agamben discuss in their works – and the themes we have hit on in class. In this literature class, we have discussed how the newts occupy a liminal space in society, and how they are subject to numerous racial theories. In the book, they are regarded as lower than African Americans, and are commonly treated and referred to as slaves. It seems to me that they occupy a position similar to lower-class working women that McClintock discusses. The newts do all of the work to advance society, yet are not allowed the opportunity to advance themselves, nor regarded as fully human (even though they are just as intelligent). Furthermore, the debates about how to (or how not to) integrate the newts into normative human civilization reminds me of the biopolitical distinctions of “zoe” and “bios” that Agamben discusses. While scientists and capitalists clearly believe the newts to be “bare life” and would prefer to enslave them and operate on them as they wish, there are still advocates that they are just as capable as humans in participating in civilization. Furthermore, the book was written in 1936, just around the time that Adolf Hitler was beginning to implement eugenics on “unwanted” populations. And as Agamben highlights, the concentration camp is the idealization of biopolitical power. Thus, in addition to being a commentary on imperialism, this novel also targets biopolitics and the injustice of eugenics and racialized enslavement and disenfranchisement. Although it would be helpful to know how the book ends (I assume that a war is looming just around the corner), these are the connections I can make as of yet.

Mallory Thayer


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