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The Good Soldier Schweik, Jaroslav Hasek 12 November 2014

After the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Austro-Hungarian Empire goes to war. Josef Švejk, a dealer in stolen dogs, does his best to get by.

The book has been called an inspiration for Catch-22 (Heller admitted as much), and it certainly makes dark military and bureaucratic absurdity its central theme, but I see it also as a prototype for Private Angelo which I reviewed earlier this year. It's never made explicit whether Švejk is genuinely feeble-minded, as he claims, or extremely cunning; that this can't be distinguished on the basis of his behaviour is rather the point. This could reasonably be called the first anti-war novel (it came out five years before All Quiet on the Western Front): whether Hašek was opposed to all war, or just to the one he'd been forced to fight in, is not clear, but I don't think it really matters.

This is something of a picaresque story, as Švejk bounces from pub to prison to asylum to various parts of the army, and this isn't helped by its sudden ending: Hašek died suddenly in 1923, after he'd written only three of the planned six volumes, and though several people have attempted completions or sequels nobody really knows what the planned ending was. As it is, we never get as far as actual battle.

But in the volumes we have we are treated to the bureaucratic absurdities of the decaying Habsburg empire, and the broad stereotypes of the people living in it. (The choice of whether to speak in Czech or German is clearly a matter of great political import, even if the various registers and modes of speech don't come out clearly in translation.) Švejk appears to mean no harm, but things go wrong around him, especially when he's been told to do something he doesn't feel like doing (like delivering a note from the officer to whom he's a batman to the married woman who's said officer's latest potential mistress, which ends with a brawl in the street and the officer being noised as a philanderer in the Hungarian press).

Between the incidents, there are little details of military life, many of which seem likely to have been drawn from Hašek's own experience. For example:

Indeed, even in the staff carriage there was a certain amount of discontent because at Fuzes-Abony an army order had been received, by which the wine rations served out to the officers were to be reduced by a quarter of a pint. Of course, the rank-and-file had not been forgotten and their sago rations had been reduced by one third of an ounce per man, which was all the more mysterious because nobody had ever seen any sago in the army.

One of the more sympathetic officers (and probably a proxy for Hašek himself) is made the battalion's historian, and busies himself inventing heroic deaths for all the men in the force, typically while surrounded by huge enemy forces and with the Emperor's name on their lips.

This is the most widely-translated Czech novel, and words derived from it have entered the language (such as švejkárna, "military absurdity"). It's often brutal, as I suppose it has to be given the subject matter, but definitely worth reading. A friend recommended it to me several years ago, and it's taken me this long to track it down (I admit I wasn't trying especially hard). I read the Selver translation from 1930 (which Germanises the names, thus Schweik rather than Švejk); Parrott's from 1973 is apparently more accurate but also more stodgy.

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See also:
Private Angelo, Eric Linklater

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