As well as reading books published in the year I was born, I also felt I should mark the diminishing number of years I have left by finally reading some of those longer volumes which I have always wanted to read but consistently put off until some vague future date when I’ll have all the time I need. (This may be related to discovering how old I’ll actually be before I can retire). The first of these is Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk which weighs in at almost 900 pages, a length which might make a less caring person relieved that the author died while writing the fourth volume of a projected six in 1923 (the first volume having been published in 1921). That is, if it weren’t for the fact that Svejk is such good company, and that it would be fascinating to know what fate Hasek had in store for him.
Hasek’s intention to chronicle the war from the beginning (presumably to the end) is obvious from the opening sentence – “And so they’ve killed our Ferdinand” – where he begins his record with the first shot fired. Of course, we experience this world-changing event from the perspective of the man (and woman) in the street (or pub). Svejk, with the literalism, localism, and ability to take any fact at a tangent which will become his trademark, mistakes the Ferdinand in question:
“I know two Ferdinand’s. One is a messenger at Prusa’s, the chemist’s, and once by mistake he drank as bottle of hair oil there. And the other is Ferdinand Kokoska who collects dog manure. Neither of them is any loss.”
Soon Svejk’s wayward pronouncements find him imprisoned for treason, but Hasek’s target here is not Svejk’s ignorance but the stupidity of the state as Svejk is entrapped by plainclothes policeman Bretschneider, alongside the bartender who is arrested for taking down a picture of the Emperor because “the flies used to shit on it.” Here we see the early signs of how Hasek will use Svejk as an unwitting instrument of satire, his rambling responses often seeming more rational than the nonsensical and frequently counter-productive machinery of state.
Svejk is the eternal innocent, moving effortlessly from one mishap to the next like a gymnast somersaulting across the floor. Trouble not only finds him but is welcomed like a long lost friend and invited to stay for a drink or three; luckily he is impervious to trouble, easily drinking him under the table. His greatest weapon is his happy admission of his own stupidity. When told, for example, to “Take that idiotic expression off your face,” he replies:
“I can’t help it…I was discharged from the army for idiocy and officially certified by a commission as an idiot. I’m an official idiot.”
This willingness to embrace his faults is in stark contrast to the many authority figures he comes into conflict with who are at pains never to back down or admit they might be wrong – an attitude, of course, which was in part responsible for both the suffering of the war and Austro-Hungary’s loss.
When Svejk finally manages to join the war effort (via the madhouse and a hospital for malingerers) it is as batman to an army chaplain, Otto Katz. One of his first duties is to collect the drunken Katz from a friend’s house and drag him home. When questioned about his inebriated companion he claims the chaplain is his brother:
“He got leave and came to visit me. He was so happy that he got drunk. You see he thought I was dead.”
The quick-witted lie suggests Svejk is not as dim as he makes out, and also demonstrates a loyalty he will show throughout the novel, first to Katz and then to Lieutenant Lukas who wins him in a game of cards. This ambiguity regarding Svejk’s character is central to the novel – should we take him at face value or is he simply playing dumb? Neither his superiors, nor the reader, know for sure.
The Good Soldier Svejk is certainly a classic of war literature (and also the inspiration behind later classics such as Catch 22), all the more so for the fact that Svejk never makes it to the front line (and I like to think that, in Hasek’s plans, he never would have). Despite its length, it is as entertaining in its final moments as it is in its opening pages. Its gentle comedy undermines militaristic idealism as effectively as the most savage satire. Svejk’s idiocy may remain uncertain, but there can be no doubt over the idiocy of war.