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Humour in the time of war,
This review is from: The Good Soldier Svejk and His Fortunes in the World War (Penguin Modern Classics) (Paperback)
Humour in the time of war Jaroslav Hasek's 752-page (Penguin) unfinished work, The Good Soldier Svejk and his Fortunes in the World War is the one book which, to my mind, is the most hilarious of the century.
Much of the book is autobiographical, and a must-read companion to it is Hasek's autobiography. The background is World War I, which started with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nephew of the Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph, at Sarajevo in Bosnia by a Serbian nationalist in 1914. Hasek's saga starts with this very incident, in the discussion of which at a bar Svejk makes statements like, "A shocking loss. You can't replace Ferdinand by any twopenny-halfpenny idiot. Only he ought to have been still fatter... Then of course he'd have had a stroke long ago, when he was chasing those old women at Konopiste when they were collecting firewood and picking mushrooms on his estate, and he wouldn't have had to die such a shameful death." For several other statements like these Svejk was hauled straight from the bar to a prison. The bar-tender was also taken in as he had said, "the flies shitted on His Imperial Majesty" (his photograph, really). Of such irreverence for authority is the book made up.
But Svejk doesn't remain long in prison, as he is found to be "a patent imbecile and idiot according to all the natural laws invented by the luminaries of psychiatry." So he is sent to a lunatic asylum where he declares to his interlocutors, "I was officially certified my military doctors as a patent idiot," and is promptly thrown out.
Svejk, who was carrying on an innocent business of painting up stray dogs and selling them off as pedigreed specimen, soon found himself drafted into the army. He goes for the draft in style, pushed in a wheelchair by his char woman as he is stricken with rheumatism. Svejk is very keen on going to the war as he says, "Except for my legs, I'm completely sound cannon-fodder."
Sorry, I'm going to refrain from quoting any more, for the entire book is quotable. The uniqueness of Svejk is that he debunks authority by the very act of accepting it. And, in a Catch-22esque way, he proves himself to be no fool merely by proclaiming himself to be one. While he is generally an amiable sort of person, when he sets his mind to it he can be ruthless, like in getting rid of his captain's creditor, dealing with a greedy batman or reducing a particularly disliked officer to speechlessness.
Some of the memorable characters in the book are Otto Katz, the drunk chaplain, who gambles away Svejk, his batman; the volunteer Marek, who is writing the regiment history in advance; the ever suffering Lieutenant Lukas who has a love-hate relationship with his batman, Svejk; and the sapper Vodicka, who considers Hungarians as "a pack of lousy bastards," who only deserve to be given a sock. The fights we have witnessed during recent times between Serbs, Bosnians, Czecs and Hungarians are echoes of the conflicts evinced in this early 20th Century novel when they were all part of the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The situations in the book are each funnier than the other. Like when Svejk loses his regiment and hopes to rejoin it by marching forward at all times, which the author calls an anabasis. In the process he takes a totally circuitous route, with many adventures on the way. Or the time when Svejk drinks up an entire bottle of illegal whisky at one go to prove to a spying officer that it was water, thus saving his lieutenant some embarrassment. Or when Svejk bungles up the delivery of a billet douce from Lt. Lukas to his ladylove, and lands up in jail. Then there are the innumerable asides - tales told by Svejk, Marek and others about their doings outside the war.
We owe much to Parrott for giving us this vibrant translation of Hasek's work. In his introduction, Parrott recognises the contribution of Max Brod (who had diagnosed the genius of the other Czechoslovakian literary giant, Franz Kafka) for putting Hasek in the forefront of 20th Century literature. Parrott quotes Brod as saying, "Hasek was a humorist of the highest calibre. A later age will perhaps put him on a level with Cervantes and Rabelais."
Almost 400 years after the picaresque writings of Rabelais (France) and Cervantes (Spain), comes this novel in a similar genre from the beleaguered Czech nation. Erich Maria Remarque's stark novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, is a serious indictment, not just of World War I but of all subsequent wars of this century. The Good Soldier Svejk, with all its humorous readability, decries the meaninglessness and wastefulness of war just as much.