Thursday, March 10, 2011

'The Good Soldier Svejk' Jaroslav Hasek

Great times call for great men.

This is the greatest anti-war book ever written, the greatest work of literature to come out of the First World War, (baring only the poetry of Owen and Rosenburg), and a modern classic. It is also one of the funniest, bitterest and bawdiest satires on human stupidity you are likely to find.

Despite his terrible rheumatism and the fact that he has been certified by the military discharge board as a congenital idiot, Czech patriot and Prague citizen Svejk joins the Austro Hungarian army after the assassinations in Sarajevo. Assigned first as batman to a Chaplain, then to a Lieutenant, then promoted to company orderly, the book details Svejk’s adventures behind the lines during the first two years of the war and culminates in his being arrested by his own side as a Russian spy on the Galician front. Narrowly avoiding execution, Svejk returns to his company. The book is unfinished, as Hasek died before he was able to complete it.

The European Everyman

It takes a writer of great gifts to create characters who take on an independent life of their own after the reader has completed the book; it takes a writer of special genius to create characters that are so life-full that they actually enter the folklore of the nation that gives rise to them. Dickens was one such, Hasek is another. From his first appearance in sketches, stories and feuilletons in the first years of the 20th century, to his more fully developed manifestation in this huge novel, the character Svejk has come to embody the folk character of those lands in central Europe previously part of the Austro Hungarian empire: Czech, Slovakia, Bohemia.

An anonymous, modest hero, shabbily dressed, Svejk embodies the little man who lives by the creed that if you cannot fight against the Empire, you can at least make its servants wish they’d never been born. Svejk’s weapons in this unequal war are cunning and guile hiding under a mask of innocence and idiocy, the propensity to land himself and his superiors in trouble, and the ability to spin tales that alternately and simultaneously enthral and appal the listener.

Hasek’s target in this satire is the Austro Hungarian Empire, especially its Army, and the Church which bolstered it up. But although the book is firmly located in time and place, and although its satire is directed at something long gone, the book still has enormous, mythic, resonance.

The Army and The Myth of the Good Soldier

In times of war the fundamental problem faced by a government is how to compel men to fight for it, to suffer for it, and to die for it. Beyond the promise of pay and loot, or the threat of punishment, what can compel men to leave their homes and jobs to endure privation for the sake of aims which are largely conceptual: ‘territory’, ‘national integrity’ and so on, and which are of more tangible benefit to those doing the compelling than those compelled? What can compel men in the face of certain death to obey their officers and leap over the parapets towards the enemy, rather than turning their guns on their officers and running for their lives towards the rear?

Military activity occurs within a framework of expectations. For the common soldier, these expectations are that they will be fed and housed and equipped and armed and transported, that their lives will not be unnecessarily thrown away through carelessness or a cavalier approach to the lives of others, and that if they meet death, their family will be taken care of and their memory honoured as heroes. For the officer, these expectations are that an order will be obeyed, that the system works to transmit directives, that the soldiers under his command have willingly subsumed their individualities in order to form part of a unit which can be ordered around, and that men and officers are united in a common strategic or tactical aim. The whole framework is united by belief in a myth which we can call The Myth of the Good Soldier.

It is in the nature of myths that they are never directly articulated but only referred to in passing, or obliquely, or in retellings. We can never point to a text and say: this is the original source of the myth. Even Sophocles, in his creation of the Oedipus myth, for example, was using stories already extant and known to all. Likewise, the Myth of the Good Soldier is nowhere fully presented but appears obliquely in other texts: army regulations, court martial procedures, staff directives, soldier’s vows, propaganda and recruitment campaigns; it forms the basis of such sentiments as Dolce et decorum est pro patria mori, regimental mottoes and verses such as Brooke’s If I should die, think only this of me… In fact, given the centrality of war in civilisation, the Myth of the Good Soldier is one of the foundation myths of the whole class structure, articulated indirectly through concepts such as ‘Honour’, ‘Patriotism’, ‘Duty’, ‘Sacrifice’, ‘Country’, ‘Loyalty’, ‘Courage,’ ‘Cowardice’, concepts appropriated or indeed invented by the compellers.

The satire in Hasek’s novel works in a double way: by directly articulating the hitherto directly unexpressed Myth of the Good Soldier, and then by satirising it.

Articulating the Myth

Throughout the novel this myth is constantly articulated:

‘Why in Gods name don’t you think’,  bawled one of the members of the commission.
‘Humbly report, I don’t think because it’s forbidden to soldiers to think on duty. When I was in the 91st regiment some years ago our captains always used to say: A soldier mustn’t think for himself. His superiors do it for him.’

‘I think it’s splendid to get oneself run through with a bayonet, and also that it’s not bad to get a bullet in the stomach. It’s even grander when you’re torn to pieces by a shell and you see that your legs and belly are somewhere remote from you…’

‘Humbly report sir, I’m awfully happy’, replied the good soldier Svejk. ‘It’ll be really marvellous when we both fall dead together for his Imperial Majesty and the Royal Family…’

Svejk is the perfect exemplar of the Mythical Good Soldier. He is polite and deferential to his superiors, expresses patriotic and martial sentiments, obeys to the letter every directive given to him, upholds in all circumstances the daftest military regulations and the reasons for them, and offers only the god like composure of an innocent child to those who suspect that he may be fooling them.

In a sense, no satire is needed, because by fully articulating the myth, Hasek exposes if for the bullshit it really is: the myth exposes itself as ludicrous.

Satirising the Myth

However, through his actions, Svejk also satirises the myth. There are countless examples throughout the novel, but the best one is when Svejk upholds army regulations when a major-general comes to inspect the latrines. When the men are using them.

Svejk sensed the gravity of the situation.
He jumped up just as he was, with his trousers down and belt around his neck, and having used the scrap of paper in the very last moment he roared out: ‘Halt! Up! Attention! Eyes right!’ and saluted. Two sections with their trousers down and their belts around their necks rose over the latrines.
The major-general smiled affably and said: ‘At ease. Carry on!’
Haf you viped your arsch?’ the major general asked Svejk.
‘Humbly report sir, everything’s in order.’
‘Von’t you sheet no more?’
‘Humbly report sir, I’ve finished.’
‘Vell now pull your hoses op and shtand at attention again…’
Svejk in his full splendour was already standing in front of the major-general who delivered a short address to him in German: ‘Respect for superiors, knowledge of service regulations and presence of mind mean everything in wartime….this man must be promoted at once and at the next opportunity his name must be put forward for the Bronze Medal for meticulous execution of duties and perfect knowledge of…… but you know what I mean…’

Hasek’s genius is that the whole thing works with a wink to the reader: we know what Svek is up to, standing with his beshitted arse in front of the major general, but the officers are mostly clueless, or at best, suspect something but cannot put their finger on what’s happening.

The Church

The novel mostly works by an alternation of incident and discourse. The narrative voice is kept mostly to the background, letting Svejk himself carry the main satirical burden. Only occasionally does the narrative voice break in with ironic or sarcastic asides.  Most of these are attacks on the Church and its role in wartime.

Preparations for the slaughter of Mankind have always been made in the name of God or some supposed higher being which men have devised and created in their own imagination….When criminals are executed, priests always officiate, molesting the delinquents with their presence. The great shambles of the world war did not take place without the blessing of priests. Chaplains of all armies prayed and celebrated drumhead masses for victory for the side whose bread they ate.

Svejk becomes batman to a Chaplain Katz, and again the satire works by expressing the myth, and satirising it at the same time. Here is a sermon delivered by a drunken Katz:

‘Sing something boys’, he shouted down at them from the pulpit, ‘Or do you want me to teach you a new song? Now sing with me:
Of all the people in the world,
I love my love the best.
I’m not her only visitor
I queue up with the rest
Her lovers are innumerable.
Now, tell me pray her name:
It is the Virgin Mary…
You’ll never learn it, you bastards, I’d like to have you all shot, do you understand? I state this from this holy place of God, you scoundrels, because God’s a thing that’s not afraid of you and’ll give you hell and all because you hesitate to turn to Christ….’


The book teems with life and characters and comic incidents and hoaxes; and stories. Everyone in the novel has stories to tell, and they are retold with gusto. Svejk is a kind of Sam Weller, with a fable for every occasion:

‘Humbly report, sir, it’s got to be shaken out of me like a hairy rug in order to get the proper view of events, if I’m permitted to quote the favourite words of the late lamented cobbler Petrlik, when he ordered his apprentice to take down his trousers before he started flogging him with a strap’.

But he is not the only one. He encounters a volunteer in gaol, and the two exchange stories, surpassing each other in scabrous invention. The book is truly funny, and should be read in public with caution.

In spite of all its hilarity, the book gets steadily darker as Svejk approaches the front, and the comedy more bitter.

As the troops passed through and camped in the neighbourhood there could be seen everywhere little heaps of human excrement of international extraction belonging to all the peoples of Austria, Germany, and Russia. The excrement of all nationalities and of confessions lay side by side or heaped on top of one another without quarrelling among themselves…

The illustrations which accompany the text in this edition, justly famous throughout Europe, are by Hasek’s friend, Joseph Lada. They were not seen by Hasek, and not approved by him. Although they are charming, with the kind of graphic flatness of folk art, they do somewhat mitigate the anger of the book’s satire. Lada’s world is quite different from Hasek’s: it’s a world of comic strip heroes and villains, whereas Hasek’s world is altogether more complex and three dimensional. Lada’s Svejk is funny, an innocent folk hero. Hasek’s Svejk is satirical and ultimately subversive.

I do not know whether I shall succeed in achieving my purpose with this book. The fact that I have already heard one man swear at another and say ‘You’re about as big an idiot as Svejk’ does not prove that I have. But if the word ‘Svejk’ becomes a new choice specimen in the already florid garland of abuse I must be content with this enrichment of the Czech language.


Jomar Hønsi said...

Excellent entry about my favourite novel. You have definitely grasped what Švejk is about!

Anonymous said...

"those lands in central Europe previously part of the Austro Hungarian empire: Czech, Slovakia, Bohemia."
Unfortunately, it is not correct. For example you may say the Czech lands or you may want to name those parts of the Czech Kingdom, such as Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia. There are of course many other nations/lands in the empire (Slovaks, Poles,etc. etc.) Simply, Bohemia is a part of the Czech lands.