The cover of the first instalment from 14 March 1921, drawn by Josef Lada. This is the only drawing of Švejk that Hašek ever saw. The better known rotund version only appeared in 1924 in Večerní České Slovo. Picture courtesy of Richard Hašek.
Jaroslav Hašek's satire is stinging, at times base but never vulgar, but first and foremost to the point. What strikes the reader most is the lack of respect for institutions and authority. It is not a coincidence that the novel at several occasions has been banned and censored. The instances that have reacted this way have felt their sore toes stamped on, and for good reasons. Subversive and anti-authoritarian literature often provoke this kind of reaction and Švejk illustrates this point well. Many associate the novel with humour first and foremost, but the message is serious and not the least timeless. The sting is directed against system created by humans, against people who abuse their positions within these power structures for personal gain or simply tow the line because of their limited horizon, selfishness, stupidity or the most tragic reason of all: the lack of alternatives. Corruption and abuse of power is by no means limited to the era and geographic region that Jaroslav Hašek described - it is a phenomenon that is deeply ingrained in human nature. The Good Soldier Švejk will therefore be relevant as long as people exist on earth. The novel has strong geographical, historical and cultural ties to Central Europe, but this does not make it less universal.
Švejk is set at the start of the First World War. It starts with the news of the assassination of Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne (Franz Ferdinand) in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 and ends at the eastern front in current Ukraine in the summer of 1915. Due to the author's early death the novel was never completed, despite Karel Vaněk's writing two more volumes. These are by most experts and readers deemed inferior and scarcely any translation exists.
Josef Švejk was a dog trader from Prague, then part of Austria-Hungary. He made a living by selling dogs which pedigrees he falsified, and he also likes to tell the he was dismissed from the army due to idiocy. Note that this is information he reserves for his encounters with the authorities. Otherwise had had a gentle, charming and disarming way, his mental horizon was apparently limited, his moral substance appeared to be dubious, and distinguished himself by producing endless anecdotes, some of them quite unsavoury. The stories were often his way of talking and wriggling himself out of tricky situations. He was very good at talking, always had an answer of explanation ready, and was never caught off balance. Despite him not appearing to be clever, he no doubt had a good memory and had also read a great deal. He also had a unique gift for manoeuvring himself out of difficult situations.
Švejk in a coloured edition from 1953. Drawn by Josef Lada.
Everyone from academics to the man in the street has since the novel was published discussed if Švejk really was mentally constrained or if he simply played a fool. He could clearly appear stupid when it suited him, but anyone who has read the novel attentively should not be in doubt: in the epilogue to Part I Jaroslav Hašek writes that if the reader had perceived Švejk to be an idiot, the author had failed in conveying his message.
Švejk appeared eager to serve his Emperor and was sent to the front to fight the Russians. On his journey there he and the people around him got entangled in innumerable absurd situations. The author uses this as a backdrop for ridiculing the Austro-Hungarian army, the Catholic Church, the police, the judiciary and not least the Habsburg empire. But above all it is the pointlessness of the entire war that is highlighted. Moreover the book has many more sides to it than anti-authoritarian and anti-war satire. The former anarchist Jaroslav Hašek is obviously political and critical of the society he lives in, he describes this epoch in European history, has a geographical and historical perspective, gives the reader an idea of the cultural diversity in the region, and the novel is in itself a key work for anyone interesting in Czech or even Central European culture. Beside the serious main message situation comedy and slapstick is a vital part of Hašek's method. The author is at his best when he describes the absurd situations in the life of ordinary people, entangled in systems designed to keep him down or destroy him, but which he survives and uncover the stupidity of with his cunning and wit. Švejk himself was a master in the art of survival "non plus ultra".
Inspired by real life
Despite the literary influences mentioned at the top of this page, Švejk is a novel that is far more inspired by Jaroslav Hašek's own life and varied experiences than any Cervantes or Rabelais. German literary expert Kurt Tucholsky was spot on when he said that in the whole world of literature he knew of no novel comparable to this one. Švejk's route to the front is described in detail and corresponds well to the author's own journey to the front in Galicia in the early days of July 1915. Several of the characters and situations are borrowed directly from Jaroslav Hašek's own surroundings and experiences. Despite the characters in the novel are often caricatures that never fully correspond to their real life counterparts, they are still recognisable, even down to biographical details. Even thought the novel is fiction and mystifications and may well be read as a historical document. The author's varied background and extremely wide knowledge is obvious throughout the novel: here are detailed descriptions of drinking binges, of the Catechism, preparation of meals, events from history, stay in lunatic asylums, religious rituals, dog breeding - all of it based on the author's own life experiences.
What was never written
If the author hadn't died before he could finish volume four of the planned six, we can assume that Švejk, like his creator, would have let himself get captured by the Russians, served in the Czechoslovak Legions, worked for the Bolsheviks and eventually ended up in Siberia. Hašek's detailed plan for his good soldier we will never know, but it can be taken for granted that he planned to cover the time in Russia, including the Civil War. To what degree the satire would have been directed against the Legions and the Bolsheviks we can only guess, but to judge from what Hašek actually wrote in Russia (and after his return) they would not have been spared but the calibre would probably not be as heavy as that directed against Austria in the first four parts of the novel. That Bugulma-stories that appeared in early 1921 indicate a much more conciliatory tone. Certain aspects of the Russian revolution are ridiculed, but the autor does not show any of the hostility know from Švejk. Hašek didn't like to be asked what he had done in Russia and when the theme was brought up retorted that those who wanted to know better wait for the novel. Unfortunately he never got to that part...
The return that never was
For certain Hašek would have let Josef Švejk return unhurt, let him drink his Velké Popovice pivo at U kalicha šest hodin večer, this time with Vodička, without the instruments of power and Bretschneider poisoning the air with their lingering odour. What he was to experience from mid-July 1915 until his return to Prague in 1920 we may well speculate on, but the author would surely have continued to roughly align the itinerary of his literary hero to his own. It may also be that the author would have let Švejk experience the same rejection and hostility as he as a "Bolshevik" and "traitor" lived through when he returned to the now independent Czechoslovakia in December 1920.
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