Saturday, August 27, 2022

Jaroslav Hašek, The Good Soldier Švejk


Opening Passage: 

'And so they've killed our Ferdinand,' said the charwoman to Mr Švejk, who had left military service years before, after having been finally certified by an army medical board as an imbecile, and now living by selling dogs -- ugly, mongrel monstrosities whose pedigrees he forged.

Apart from this occupation he suffered from rheumatism and was at this very moment rubbing his knees with Elliman's embrocation. (p. 3)

Summary: The Great War begins and the people of the Austro-Hungarian Empire find themselves faced with a war that almost everyone is sure that they will lose. (A number of people in the course of the story indicate in one way or another that their great hope is that the Empire loses quickly enough that they can get back to their lives without much trouble.) Because people are so sure that the Empire will lose, when Švejk, who was previously discharged from the military for imbecility, tries to express an enthusiastic patriotism and support for the (not very well liked) emperor, he comes under suspicion for treason, due to having been a little too enthusiastic. Nobody can decide whether he is sincere, or sarcastic, or just stupid. He is sent to prison, then to the lunatic asylum, then to the army.

In the army, he is made the batman (the valet or personal orderly) of the chaplain, Otto Katz; Katz is Catholic, but he is chaplain mostly because of the conveniences of a job in the ministry. He is also alcoholic and a gambler, with the result that he eventually gambles Švejk off to Lieutenant Lukáš, whose batman he then becomes. Lieutenant Lukáš may have won the cards, but he will soon learn that he perhaps did not get the better prize. Švejk has a knack for innocently -- or perhaps 'innocently' -- getting people into trouble, and Lieutenant Lukáš's weaknesses -- he is a womanizer with a taste for married women and has a soft spot for dogs -- soon interact with Švejk's bland, rambling disregard for normal conventions in his enthusiastic -- or perhaps it is 'enthusiastic' -- desire to help, and Lieutenant Lukáš, who had had a fairly good thing going, finds himself ordered to the frontlines as a punishment for the theft of a superior's dog. He and Švejk head out. They are sent to České Budějovice, in southern Bohemia, as a sort of waystation on the way to the fighting, but before he gets there, Švejk gets distracted by the inevitable trouble that follows him, misses all the trains out, and then wanders around in an 'anabasis' trying in vain -- or perhaps 'trying in vain' -- to find České Budějovice. He does get to the latter, but only because he gets arrested as a deserter and possible spy and sent there to be tried for it. This, of course, does not make Lieutenant Lukáš's life any easier. The regiment moves on to Bruck an der Leitha, where Švejk gets arrested again, this time for provoking a riot between the Hungarians and the Czechs. But with his impenetrable innocence -- or 'innocence' -- he makes his way through this problem by being promoted to the position of orderly for the entire regiment.

Slowly the sheer momentum of the war pulls Švejk closer to the Eastern Front, but his progress in that direction is slowed again when he discovers an abandoned Russian soldier's uniform and runs into Austro-Hungarian patrols while trying it on. He is, of course, arrested as a Russian spy. He is scheduled to be executed, but lucks out and is returned to his regiment. At this point the book ends, never having been finished. There is some reason to think that Hašek's plan was for Švejk to get to the trenches, only to be shortly afterward captured by the Russians and spend time in a Russian POW camp. (Švejk has been in just about every other kind of prison, so completeness alone would suggest it.) But there is something fitting about Švejk never reaching Galicia and the front lines.

There are many kinds of humor in this book: slapstick, irony, barracks humor, satire, blasphemy, toilet humor, and the like. Some of it is quite hilarious -- the satire is occasionally quite funny, the book balances Švejk very nicely on that ambiguity between sincere and sarcastic enthusiasm. Some it is a bit harsher; the vulgar humor gets extremely vulgar. Hašek is famous for arguing that profanity and the like has a place due to realism, but I've known foulmouthed rednecks who would hesitate to tell some of the more vulgar stories that come up. In some cases, as well, the mockery seems to go well beyond poking fun at weaknesses and failings and seems almost motivated by hatred, so vehement it is beyond proportion to the very ordinary weaknesses of those mocked. This happens a few times, but the most obvious case is that of Cadet Biegler, the slightly pompous would-be warrior-hero whose entire knowledge of the military is from textbooks. Perhaps it's partly due to the translation, but I quickly found myself no longer finding funny the humiliations he was put through -- instead I started feeling sorry for the poor little fool. There are also numerous times when there's obviously some joke going on, but it's so weirdly structured and even garbled that it's hard to say what it is. (The translator says in the Introduction that the whole book was written quickly and that some passages were pretty clearly written while drunk, and I can believe it even through the translation.) Nonetheless, these rather unsettling parts are a small portion of a very large book, whose dark comedy is sometimes masterfully done.

Favorite Passage:

Colonel Friedrich Kraus, who bore the additional title of von Zillergut after a village in the district of Salzburg which his ancestors had already completely fleeced in the eighteenth century, was a most venerable idiot. Whenever he was relating something, he could only speak in platitudes, asking whether everybody could understand the most primitive expressions: 'And so a window, gentlemen, ye. Well, do you know what a window is?'

Or: 'A track which has a ditch on each side of it is called a road. Yes, gentlemen. Now, do you know what a ditch is? A ditch is an excavation on which several people work. It is a hollow. Yes. They work with picks. Now, do you know what a pick is?'

He suffered from a mania for explanations, which he gave with the enthusiasm of an inventor expounding his work.

'A book, gentlemen, is a number of squares of paper cut in different ways and of varying formats which are printed on and put together, bound and gummed. Yes. Well, do you know, gentlemen, what gum is? Gum is adhesive material.'

He was so colossally stupid that the officers avoided him from afar so as not to have to hear from him that the pavement divided the street from the carriage-way and that it was a raised paved strip along the façade of the house. And the façade of the house was that part of it which we see from the street or from the pavement. We cannot see the rear part of the house from the pavement, a fact we can immediately prove to ourselves by stepping into the carriage-way.

He was ready to demonstrate this interesting fact at once. Fortunately however he was run over.... (p. 201)

Recommendation: I'm not sure. Certainly the book is often extremely funny, but you have to go into it knowing that anything and everything will be ruthlessly mocked, sometimes with deliberately bad taste.


Jaroslav Hašek, The Good Soldier Švejk, Parrot, tr., Penguin (New York: 2000).