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Svejk Goes to War
Fiction - General
Member Name: proxam
Fiction - General
Date: 19/07/04, updated on 28/12/11 (445 review reads)
Advantages: An irreverent look at the folly of war
Disadvantages: Ha?ek died before finishing all the volumes
THE GOOD SOLDIER SVEJK did not come to enjoy the same success as some other novels about World War I, probably because the style of the book is not really dark and sombre. In my opinion though, it's every bit as valid as All Quiet on the Western Front, and is in no way inferior just because it is not a tear-jerker. Hasek's satire, and his use of double-entendre is quite simply masterful.
This book is one of the classics of literature that sprang from the blood-fertilized killing-grounds of WW1. But it's a war book with a twist. It's profoundly funny - hilarious in fact - an anti-war novel that haplessly wanders throughout the old Austro-Hungarian Empire without getting anywhere near the Russian front. Unlike Remarque's book, Hasek's novel views the war as an absurd event, a colossal stupidity as seen through the eyes of a colossally stupid man.
* The Plot *
This isn't a book with a beginning middle and end. It's a rambling journey of pointless little stories that are told to illustrate examples of whatever situation our hero finds himself in - of course, they never do.
The story begins with Svejk, a citizen of Prague, being drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army on the eve of WWI. It then goes on to document his excruciatingly delayed arrival at the Eastern Front and his farcical capture by his own side.
This is not an epic tale of the death of an Empire, but a collection of satirical anecdotes about the Austrian army, and life in the Austro-Hungarian empire during WW1. It follows our hero through the trials and tribulations of being prosecuted for treason, confined for idiocy, being treated for simulati
ng arthritis, nursing the hangovers of a debauched Jewish-Catholic army chaplain, stealing dogs* while batman to an officer with a passion for expensive pets, and eventually going to the front lines as a soldier in the Austrian army.
* According to Svejk, "the best time to steal a dog is when it is attending to it's larger toilet needs. Dogs are well aware that this is the most dangerous time for them, the most likely time to be stolen. That's why a dog, when doing it's business, will continually look around nervously with that apprehensive expression on it's stupid face."
Svejk's particular trait is a tendency to misinterpret orders, or rather to interpret them far too literally, whilst attempting to please his superior officers to the extent that it infuriates them. He seems completely obtuse, doing everything with his customary blank expression of stupidity. All the while, and at every single conceivable opportunity, he recounts wandering anecdotes that, although they simply go nowhere, are usually laugh-out-loud funny. (It has been estimated that there are around 200 such stories interwoven throughout the novel).
Svejk is a happy-go-lucky drunk and a joker, who wanders from pub to pub and infuriates his superiors with silly stories. He expresses his patriotism with such passion that it makes those around him wonder whether he is an idiot or a dissident.
Hasek lays bare the ridiculousness of the old Hapsburg monarchy: the ethnic rivalries, the endless bureaucracies and the croneying nepotism. The military leadership consists of senile old men and jobsworth pencil-pushers, who spend more time regulating the soldiers' bowel movements than formulating any meaningful strategy. Embezzlement is an every-day occurrence; everyone steals - from generals who skim millions, and cooks who hide meat and cheese to sel
l, to Red Cross workers pilfering medicines and supplies.
Self-righteous ladies from morality clubs lecture the young recruits about the importance of abstaining from sex and alcohol in what is probably the last few weeks of their lives. Commanders try to impress upon the soldiers the honour and glory in dying for the Emperor - the honour and glory which, "will culminate in a mud-spattered Austrian army cap hanging from a cross in some field."
But Svejk isn't as stupid as he acts.
He is honest, naive, incompetent, but perhaps a little shrewder than he appears - the reader remains unsure whether he is a devil-may-care buffoon or a conniving, accomplished actor. Through a series of mishaps, blunders, deliberate scams and other reasons, he always seems to, somehow or other, just avoid going to the front.
Hasek kept writing his novel until the very day he died. The story, therefore, ends abruptly, almost in mid-sentence.
It is quite a long-winded and wordy book (largely because Hasek wrote the book as a serial published in a Czech newspaper and he was paid by the word), but it's easy reading for all that.
Compared with all the more serious, and gloomy literature that was spawned by the First World War, Svejk is hilarious - a breath of fresh air. Having said that, with a serious subtext interwoven throughout, it's an anti-war book not to be missed.
With its simplicity and originality, it is a sound lesson in not taking the world too seriously.
The book is lavishly illustrated with Josef Lada's series of cartoons (classics in their own right) which show Svejk as an overweight, badly shaven, middle-aged, ordinary but comical, looking man.
The novel was banned from the Czechoslovakian army in 1925, followed by further restrictions in Po
land, Bulgaria etc. before the German translation was burned on Nazi bonfires in 1933.
* The Author *
Jaroslav Hasek was born in Prague in 1883 and was educated at the Prague Commercial Academy, from which he graduated at the age of nineteen. He was promptly fired from his first job - he was already a heavy drinker.
From very early on he was active as an anarchist and published widely in Czech political journals. In 1907 he became an editor of the anarchist magazine Komuna.
He was involved in dog stealing and forged pedigrees for mongrel dogs - as was Svejk. After a failed suicide attempt, Hasek spent a short time in a mental hospital, which no doubt gave him a lot of material for Svejk's adventures.
During World War I Hasek served at various times in Czech, Russian and Austrian armies. He was a volunteer in the Austrian 91st Regiment on the Galician front in 1915, and depicts in 'The Good Soldier Svejk', some of his superiors from those days by their real names.
In September 1915 his unit was cut off as the result of a sudden Russian breakthrough, and Hasek surrendered himself to the Russians. He was imprisoned in camps in the Ukraine and later in the Urals.
Hasek joined the Czech Legion, becoming active as a propagandist for the Legion and other Czech organizations. In 1918 he went over to the Bolsheviks, who made him a political commissar in their Fifth Army. Two years later he returned to Prague and nationalist politics.
All of this was the material for The Good Soldier Svejk, which, written in common Czech, was an immediate success.
Hasek had difficulty finding a publisher, so he financed the printing and distribution of th
e first volume himself in 1921.
Originally Hasek planned to continue the novel to six volumes, but he died on January 3, 1923 - of tuberculosis contracted during the war - before completing his work. Three volumes appeared, and then a posthumous fourth one, completed by his friend Karel Vanek.
As many of you will have surmised by now, I'm a multi-talented guy. Sadly my talents don't extend to understanding Czech (apart from ordering beer).
Fortunately, the Penguin Modern Classic edition I read was translated into English by Cecil Parrot.
Thanks for reading
Summary: THE GOOD SOLDIER SVEJK