A friend’s recounting of a hen party in Prague brought to mind one of the funniest novels I have ever read, a book that inspired Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and was one of Bertolt Brecht’s favourite novels, and which has come to symbolise what it means to be Czech. I first came across it on the shelves of a local library as a teenager and was drawn to it by the caricatures of its characters by leading illustrator Josef Lada. The book? The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek. And here follows the story of both book and author…
Jaroslav Hašek (1883 – 1923) was a humourist, satirist, journalist, bohemian, and anarchist, and when he wasn’t being all those things he was a writer, with this, his most famous novel, better known more simply as The Good Soldier Švejk, being an unfinished collection of farcical incidents about a soldier in World War I and a satire on the ineptitude of authority figures.
Hašek originally intended Švejk to cover a total of six volumes, but had completed only three (and started on the fourth) when he died of a heart attack in 1923. A translation of the book into German by Grete Reiner, editor of an anti-fascist magazine, in 1926, was largely responsible for the speedy dissemination of Švejk’s fame across Europe. It was one of the books burned by the Nazis in 1933. Reiner was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944.
So, who or what is Švejk? Considered to be one of the greatest masterpieces of satirical writing, the novel is set in Austria-Hungary – at the time a multi-ethnic empire covering much of central and eastern Europe and ridden with ethnic tensions – during World War I. The novel deals with anti-war themes through a series of absurdly comic episodes in which it explores the pointlessness and futility of conflict in general and military discipline where most of the characters are participating in a conflict they do not understand on behalf of an empire to which they have little or no loyalty.
Švejk, through sheer idiocy, manages to frustrate military authority and expose its own stupidity in a form of passive resistance. It’s always left unclear whether he is in fact genuinely incompetent or just acting quite deliberately with dumb insolence: we learn on the opening page that he has been certified as an imbecile by an official military medical commission and consequently, he reasons, he cannot be held responsible for his often questionable actions because he’s a certified idiot!
Yet Švejk is not a coward, nor is he indolent. He is drafted back into the army as cannon fodder to die for an Emperor he despises. His method of subverting the Austro-Hungarian Empire is to carry out his orders to an absurd conclusion. His is an inspired resistance. He holds the foreign authorities, and their Czech fellow travellers, accountable for their ridiculous platitudes and pseudo-patriotic waffle.
The idiocy and subversion of Švejk has entered the Czech language in the form of words including švejkovina (‘švejking’), švejkovat (‘to švejk’), švejkárna (military absurdity). By the time a full English translation of Hašek’s novel was published in 1973, many Czechs had long identified with the character of Švejk, and the uncanny ability of this ‘little man’ to plough his own furrow in the face of overbearing authority and which came to be a symbol of their own non-violent resistance to cultural and political domination by more powerful neighbours in 1968.
But what about Hašek, the man behind the book? Well, the story of his life is possibly even more tragi-comic and eventful than that of his most famous character.
Hašek was born in 1883 at a time of rising Czech national consciousness and is known to have participated in anti-German riots in Prague when he was barely fourteen. He later joined the anarchist movement leading to further conflict with the authorities and he was frequently imprisoned for short periods, once being jailed for assaulting a policeman.
Besides his political leanings, he also lived something of a beatnik lifestyle, often dropping everything and going off on jaunts around the Austro-Hungarian Empire without a penny in his pocket, supporting himself by begging while hanging out with tramps and vagabonds. He began to eke out a living as a writer and journalist when he was just seventeen and became well known in Prague cultural circles due to his legendary drinking exploits and anarchic, slightly surreal personality, rather than any literary prowess.
Although Hašek quietened down a little at the insistence of his wife Jarmila when he got married in 1910, he was unable to stay out of mischief for very long, soon reverting to his old habits and the pair separated a couple of years later. He returned to his old bohemian lifestyle and generally getting into trouble with memorable incidents including getting arrested for pretending to be a Russian spy and being committed to an asylum for pretending to commit suicide by jumping off Charles Bridge. In 1911, he established his own political party to parody the political scene.
He was called up in 1915 to fight for the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the with the experience providing him with much of the material for The Good Soldier Švejk. Like his protagonist, Hašek was to see little action as he ended up surrendering to the Russians just a few months after he joined up, and like Švejk, he landed on his feet and spent much of the rest of the war working in the comfortable office of a prison camp commandment.
He remained in Russia for a couple of years after the conflict and even became a Bolshevik, working as a Soviet Commissar in a small town, one of the few times in Hašek’s life when he gave up drinking and managed to lead an orderly existence for more than two years. He soon tired of this sober life though, or more likely could not adapt to the strictures of Soviet society, and he turned up in Prague again in 1920 with a new Russian ‘wife’ even though he hadn’t bothered divorcing his first one.
Once back in Prague, he quickly began drinking again and it wasn’t long before he started getting into more trouble, one incident involving him organising a farcical battle re-enactment to celebrate the anniversary one of the most famous Czech victories in the Hussite Wars although this version resulted in a Czech loss due to the overly drunk participants!
Like many ’folk-hero’ writers from other countries, Hašek’s attitude to life captured the Czech public imagination to such an extent that he now embodies something more than a mere literary figure. In the same way in which the Irish love the whimsical iconoclasm of Flann O’Brien, and Americans adore the free-spirited individualism of Jack Kerouac, Hašek’s own maverick nature and ironically subversive writings have struck a chord with many Czechs, and he occupies a similar place in his nation’s heart.
Sadly, like both aforementioned writers, Hašek too paid a heavy price for the life he led as he also drank himself into an early grave. He was not yet 40 years of age when he passed away, leaving the last volume of The Good Soldier Švejk unfinished. Although there is a sense he could have achieved more if he had reined in his excesses, he was probably very aware of own shortcomings and the likelihood is that Švejk came into being because of Hašek’s dissolute lifestyle rather than in spite of it. In any event, like all great writers, Hašek’s life was inextricably bound up with his work and ultimately helped him become the renowned author who is still widely read to this day.
If you haven’t yet enjoyed the work of Hašek, then I recommend Sir Cecil Parrott’s translation of The Good Soldier Švejk and his biographies of Hašek. There are also collections of other stories including The Bachura Scandal, Drunkard’s Tales, and The Red Commissar, the latter which includes further adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk.