The plot of War with the Newts is comparatively simple. What makes the book provocative and memorable are its multiple satiric targets and wealth of satiric detail. The story opens with J. van Toch, a crusty, disenchanted sea captain, a parody of a character out of a Joseph Conrad sea story, who is looking for pearls somewhere west of Sumatra. The Ceylonese pearl fisheries have been depleted, so he has to find new ones. When he learns that terrified Bataks will not dive at Devil Bay, he investigates and discovers that the supposed sea devils there are actually newts, a species of giant salamander. The newt population has been kept down by sharks, but when Captain van Toch provides knives and harpoons with which to kill the sharks, the grateful newts supply him with a fortune in pearls. The newts also show a genius for underwater engineering and build breakwaters to keep out sharks.
Once they are safe, the newts multiply rapidly. When there are no more pearls left in Devil Bay, Captain van Toch (who is Czech, despite his Dutch-sounding name) goes to Prague to negotiate with Bondy, a financier, to export newts to other pearl islands and to establish newt farms.
When Captain van Toch dies, his “old, exotic, colonial, almost heroic style,” in the manner of Jack London and Joseph Conrad, is ended, and unscrupulous businesspeople take over. Soon the pearl market is glutted. The newts are proliferating so rapidly that the Salamander...
(The entire section is 408 words.)