Jaroslav Hašek’s unfinished comic novel The Good Soldier Švejk: and His Fortunes in the World War, ranked #96 on Daniel Burt’s Novel 100 and part of the Bloomsbury 100, is a funny, sprawling, slow-reading, and deeply angry look at the pointlessness of war through the eyes of an anarchist soldier who’d be at home in Project Mayhem yet manages to put on a good face enough to keep himself out of harm’s way.
The novel follows the exploits – although given how little he manages to accomplish, we might better call them inploits, or unploits – of the soldier named Švejk (pronounced something like “schwayk”), who finds himself drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army at the dawn of World War I and acts with a single goal in mind, that of his own survival. Along the way, he’s passed from one half-wit superior officer to another, from power-mad lieutenants to drunken chaplains, gets lost (most likely on purpose) in Bohemia in a section ironically referred to as “Švejk’s anabasis,” gets arrested and nearly hung, and always responds to inquiries by telling the absolute truth, embellished with a ridiculous anecdote of someone Švejk knew in his hometown.
The grand secret of Švejk – the character and the novel – is that absurdity is the only viable strategy in the face of the absurdity of a higher authority. Faced with a war that makes survival unlikely, fought over a cause in which none of the fighters has a personal stake, Švejk chooses to “pretend to be an idiot,” playing the part of a perfect innocent who relives what is, in essence, the same episode over and over and always escaping by disarming and/or exasperating those who wish to send him to certain death on the front lines.
If this sounds a lot like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, then you’ve got the idea. Švejk is not a direct antecedent to Yossarian; the latter’s subversion is explicit, while the former works through simpler and more ostensibly innocent means, like taking a direct order a little too literally. Working as batman to the lieutenant he haunts for much of the book, Švejk fulfills his master’s order for a dog by kidnapping one off the street, only to find that the dog’s owner is the lieutenant’s commanding officer, the insane Colonel Kraus, who peppers his harangues by asking his charges if they know what obvious words like “window” or “hoe” mean. Yossarian engages in more active efforts of sabotage – and has plenty of help from his fellow soldiers – whereas Švejk is a solitary operative attempting not to end a futile war but only to get himself to the next sunrise without getting shot.
(I’ve struggled to find a definitive answer on whether Švejk was a direct influence on Catch-22; Wikipedia – which is never wrong – states that it was, probably based on the claim by Czech writer Arnošt Lustig that Heller told him he couldn’t have written his masterpiece if he hadn’t first read Švejk. That seems to be the only source for this assertion; this 2004 New York Times review of a Švejk play states that Heller “ told various interviewers that Céline and Kafka were his most powerful influences and that Švejk was ”just a funny book,’” while a Vanity Fair article from August gives a non-Švejk origin story for Catch-22. I could see a truth in between the two extremes, where Heller, having read the book, was influenced by it on a subconscious level, drawing inspiration from its hero’s response to the war’s absurdity but never returning to the earlier novel in his writing process or alluding to it directly in the text.)
The Good Soldier Švejk is tough to read, even with its humor, for two reasons. One is the translation by Cecil Parrott that has earned criticism for excessively literal, “unimaginative” translations of words and phrases, leaving speech sounded stilted and losing the humor of the original Czech text (that’s the critic’s opinion, not mine). Slavic texts are often tough to read because the sentence structure in those languages differs from ours and because the literary style, especially in the 19th century and early 20th, tended toward long, ponderous passages. The other drawback is that the book is, by design, repetitive. War is stupid, monotonous, and produces entirely foreseeable results. I can’t blame Hašek for making that point through the circular plot, but the feeling that we’re not really going anywhere – combined with the knowledge that the novel is unfinished, so we can’t even get where we might have been going – made my forward progress slow.
Unrelated to any of the above, Hašek talks a lot about food, including jitrnice (a type of Czech liverwurst), goulash, and kolache (a fruit-filled pastry found in parts of Texas where Czech immigrants settled). I was most struck by Hašek’s description of how the insatiable soldier Baloun describes a dish he remembers from back home:
‘You know, at home in Kašperské Hory we make a sort of small dumplings out of raw potatoes. We boil them, dip them in egg and roll them well in breadcrumbs. After that we fry them with bacon.’ He pronounced the last word in a mysteriously solemn tone.
Shouldn’t we always pronounce “bacon” in a mysteriously solemn tone?
Next up: Evelyn Waugh’s biting comic novel Vile Bodies.