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the good soldier švejk

'The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War' is the full title of Jaroslav Hašek's satirical masterpiece, left incomplete by his premature death in 1923. A precursor to 'Catch-22', the novel builds on a long tradition of the picaresque, but also points the way to a more savage kind of 20th century satire.

Set during World War I, 'The Good Soldier Švejk' details the enthusiastic but ill-fated attempts of its eponymous Czech hero to play his part in the great events of his time. After the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the happy-go-lucky vagabond Švejk enlists in the Austro-Hungarian army, and he spends the rest of the novel on his way to the front. In one big detour, Švejk goes from being locked up in an insane asylum to being the personal assistant of an alcoholic army priest, all the while entertaining people with an endless stream of stories and anecdotes.

'...They ran around me like dogs and yapped at me, but I did nothing. I kept mum, saluted, left hand on the seam of my trousers. When they had been raging like this for about half an hour, the colonel rushed at me and roared: "Are you a half-wit or aren't you?" - "Humbly report, sir, I'm a half-wit." - "Very well then. Twenty-one days strict confinement for imbecility, two days a week fasting, a month confined to barracks, forty-eight hours in handcuffs, immediate arrest, don't let him eat, truss him, show him that the monarchy doesn't need half-wits..."'
The Good Soldier Švejk

One of the things that makes Švejk such an interesting character is that it's hard to decide whether he is simply a fool who doesn't know any better, or he deliberately frustrates every single one of his superiors, making a mess of whatever they order him to do. This question is never really answered, but one thing is clear: the result of Švejk's stupidity and/or strategy is that he never reaches the front. And even though the story breaks off abruptly, I doubt if Hašek would have ever let Švejk see any actual combat.

In classic picaresque fashion, Švejk and his comic adventures are set up as a vehicle for societal criticism, contrasting an over-eager anti-hero with the absurdities of his war-torn surroundings. As Švejk journeys towards the front with (and often without) his regiment, we get a sense of the whole of Europe in bloody turmoil while Švejk happily wanders through it all. The story is mostly concerned with Švejk's adventures, but at certain points the narrator interjects his own views, with a viciousness that hits home precisely because of the contrast with the otherwise lighthearted tone.

They were now going back to the front to get new wounds, mutilations and pains and to earn the reward of a simple wooden cross over their graves. Years after on the mournful plains of East Galicia a faded Austrian soldier's cap with a rusty Imperial badge would flutter over it in wind and rain. From time to time a miserable old carrion crow would perch on it, recalling fat feasts of bygone days when there used to be spread for him an unending table of human corpses and horse carcasses, when just under the cap on which he perched there lay the daintiest morsels of all - human eyes.

The reference to the cross is not accidental. Throughout the story, Hašek's rants focus mainly on the army and the church - those all-powerful institutions which lose sight of simple human values (having a beer, telling a story) in an inhuman apparatus of bureaucracy and incompetence, in which Švejk, for all his antics, is but a tiny cogwheel. Thus Hašek is interested not so much in warfare itself as in the ideological system that creates it, the inscrutable process that inputs people and outputs cannon fodder.

Here all logic mostly disappeared and the § triumphed. The § strangled, went mad, fumed, laughed, threatened, murdered and gave no quarter. The magistrates were jugglers with the law, high priests of its letter, devourers of the accused, tigers of the Austrian jungle, who measured their spring on the accused by the number of clauses.

From this quote (when Švejk appears before a criminal court) the similarities with Joseph Heller's 'Catch-22' become apparent, and there are many others. Take the regiment historian who has decided it's much easier to write the history of the war before they reach the front, including detailed descriptions of the heroic deaths of his own companions. Or the mix-up with a new army cipher, the key to which is an obscure novel called 'The Sins of our Fathers' - only the novel turns out to be in two parts, and some officers have been issued with the wrong volume, making their telegrams into incomprehensible nonsense.

Inspired by 'Švejk' and its hilarious confusion, Heller transposed it to World War II. He, too, mocked the institutions of war and the absurdities it leads to. However, the essential difference between these two novels is in the attitude of their protagonists. Švejk appears blissfully unaffected by the war, while Yossarian all but loses his sanity from being immersed for too long in the army's mindboggling irrationality - symbolized in the very concept of Catch-22.

Looking back at 'Švejk', it seems Hašek found the classic picaresque satire, so popular during the previous centuries, too mild for the horrors of 20th century war. While still using its devices, Hašek introduced a much more bleak type of humour, as testified by its vicious rants, thoroughly immoral characters and absurd logic. All of which Heller would take to a level where it was impossible for his protagonist to remain unaffected. After Hašek, there would never again be a wartime hero as carefree as 'The Good Soldier Švejk'.

The famous illustrations from 'Švejk' are by Josef Lada.

See also the illuminating essay 'On Hašek's The Good Soldier Švejk'.


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three comments

". . . it is with a great relief and pleasure that we are hereby dutifully reporting that Book Two and Book(s) Three&Four of our new translation of Jaroslav Hašek's The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War are available for sale as paperbacks at http://zenny.com.

We hope this announcement finds you in good health and disposition and hungry for more adventures of the good soldier ... after all these years."

More information on the Svejk phenomenon at http://SvejkCentral.com

dazimon (URL), 15-08-’09 01:01

thanks for the heads up dazimon. and congratulations on completing this colossal project!

curious to see how your translation differs from the cecil parrott version (is it really that clumsy?) - tho unfortunately i'll never be able to judge its relation to the original.

bv (URL), 17-08-’09 22:52

As for the differences, there has been readers' feedback regarding Book One. You can find some of the comments on http://www.zenny.com/svejk/. Once there, click on READ THE PRESS FEATURES AND REVIEWS HERE. It is not just a matter of how clumsy the translation is (for it is a very hard text to translate, as discussed on the site), but a matter of point of view. That in my mind has been the real problem with translations of Svejk. Even the original has been misinterpreted to serve this or that political point of view. There are a few ideas about that in Challenges of translating Svejk into English: A report on the experimental project of its "Chicago version" which you can find in the Societal Phenomenon section of Svejk Central. :-)

dazimo (URL), 17-08-’09 23:44

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