Think of a cross between Dad’s Army and Father Ted and just as funny, this unfinished satirical novel by Jaroslav Hašek is the most translated novel in Czech literature. A trenchant anti-war novel, The Good Soldier Schwejk, like many a fine satire, still hasn’t lost its bite despite the passage of time. Thus the novel is not only a great and thought-provoking read, it will have you guffawing throughout in the process.
Why read a Czech novel, written in the 1920s and set in Central Europe around the time of the First World War? Firstly, it’s a hysterical read. It contains some of the best comedy writing you’re likely to come across. Hašek, like Dickens, is a master of the turn of phrase when it comes to setting up a comical scene or character. And although the satire is set among the idiocies and idiosyncrasies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the novel’s other targets – the military, organised religion, jingoism, hypocrisy, the faceless bureaucracy and machinations of state power – are sadly universal and timeless.
As, in a way, is the novel’s hero, a kind of Everyman figure, the Good Soldier Schwejk, an “officially certified idiot“, as he never tires of telling people. Schwejk proves that to survive in a mad world you can have no better recourse than idiocy. However, you can’t help wondering if Schwejk really is the “officially certified idiot” he seems to be or has he instinctively cottoned on, like a more illustrious forerunner, the Roman Emperor Claudius, that in a mad and dangerous world being an idiot is the surest form of refuge.
The novel opens immediately after the assassination of Grand Duke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, and sees Schwejk back in the army though not without incident – including being first arrested as a co-conspirator in the assassination thanks to the blatant lies of a particularly incompetent secret state policeman and then ending up in the madhouse. It says something of the “real world” when Schwejk notes that his stay there “were some of the best days of my life.”
Schwejk’s “real world” is that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a regime forced to resort to spying (ineptly) on its own people and grading their loyalty. It is also an Empire comprising different nationalities that only seem to have one thing in common – their mutual contempt for each other.
Reading between the lines it’s hard to work out who the Czechs despise more – the Empire, the Emperor, the war, the Austrians or the Hungarians. In fact, the Czechs and Hungarians seem more intent on fighting each other than any supposed enemy. This national schizophrenia is also apparent in individuals such as First Lieutenant Lukasch. “First Lieutenant Lukasch was typical of professional officers of the decaying Austrian monarchy…. He spoke in German when in company, wrote in German, read Czech books, and when he taught only Czechs at army volunteer school would say to them in confidence. ‘We are Czechs, but no one must know. I’m also Czech.’ He regarded being Czech as a type of secret organisation, best to be avoided.”
Thus you have an Austrian-Hungarian army where troops not only can’t understand or communicate with each other; they often can’t communicate with their own officers who tend to be German-speaking. This Empire’s army is now fighting the army of the Russian Empire, likewise consisting of numerous nations, none much fond of each other either. The lunacy of this situation is highlighted with great aplomb when Schwejk is taken as a prisoner-of-war by his own side; Hungarian soldiers who, not speaking Czech, assume he is Russian. To be fair, by then Schwejk is dressed in a Russian uniform (don’t ask). Meanwhile the Russian prisoners can’t point out the mistake to their captors as they themselves hale from various nations and speak a variety of languages (apart from Russian of course) so are also none the wiser.
As for the Slavic populations, including the Czechs, within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, they seem to be viewed by the Austrians and Hungarians with suspicion, wary that they may have more in common with the Russians than with them. Such suspicions are exacerbated when Czech troops reportedly go over to the other side or fail to offer much resistance at the front. Thus at times we witness cruel and vicious treatment of other Slavic nationalities within the Empire from the Empire’s own troops. Needless to say the Jewish population doesn’t fare much better either.
However the Imperial Army seems inept at getting any of the local populations onside, as exemplified by the attitude of the priest who Schwejk is billeted with at the Front. “His father had raised him to detest the Russians, a hatred he suddenly lost, once the Russians retreated and the Austrian military arrived.”
As for the officers, they are invariably imbeciles, mad or both and often Austrian. A prime example is Colonel Kraus. Kraus has a predilection for stating the obvious, such as asking people do they know what a book, glue or a window is and then explaining to them what these items are on the off chance they don’t. Fortunately Klaus is run over when trying to prove you can’t see the back of a house from the road out front.
And in the absurd world of the Austro-Hungarian Empire it seems such an officer is not out of place. Even if, on military manoeuvres in South Bohemia, he mistakenly ends up in Moravia days after everyone else is safely back in barracks. “It was really astonishing that this idiot could advance relatively quickly and had immensely influential people behind him, for example a high-ranking General who stood up for him despite him being absolutely incompetent in military matters.”
The narrator helpfully goes on to explain how such an absurdity could exist. “If we analyse his intellectual abilities, we must come to the conclusion, that they were not any better than those which made the boastful Habsburg (Austrian Emperor) Franz Josef famous as a notorious idiot.”
Kraus is also a stickler for being saluted by his men even when they don’t see him, being of the sound opinion that should a soldier “fall on the battlefield, he should still salute before dying.” Then there is Major Wenzel who is reputed to have destroyed a pontoon bridge while half of his battalion was still on the other side of the river; Lieutenant Dub who informs his men that a shot down aeroplane is Russian despite the fact that the words “Wiener Neustadt” are clearly imprinted on the tyres; General Fink von Finkenstein whose favourite pastime is to hold kangaroo courts and hang people; and lastly, Ensign Dauerling, so stupid that one of his private tutors wanted to throw himself of the tower of St Stephen’s Cathedral.
However, the narrator readily admits an educational background is of little use to an Austrian officer on active service. “His (Dauerling) stupidity was so striking that it gave grounds to hope that after a couple of decades he might perhaps end up in the Theresian Officers Academy or in the War Ministry.” And it would seem the War Ministry would be the right place. As officers note when they feel Colonel Schröder has finally lost it. “The old man has gone mad, they all thought, it’s all over with him. Now they’ll have to transfer him to the War Ministry.”
And among this officer class, the worst warmongers, are always those keenest to escape the front themselves such as First Lieutenant Dr Bautze who “in the course of the 10 weeks he was active had weeded out 10,999 malingerers out of 11,000 civilians and would have broken the eleven thousandth, if this fortunate man had not had a stroke at precisely the moment he had yelled at him ‘About face’.”
What all the officers have in common is their indifference to the suffering of their men or having any real idea of what war means. The men are treated appallingly throughout: from freezing in their barracks, while the officers are forced to open the windows of theirs because it’s so hot to perhaps the most cynical of all – the army’s refusal to pay the men until after they go into battle to save money on its wages bill.
Not surprisingly the men are disheartened and ill-disciplined. None seem to think that their own side has any chance of winning and all are convinced that their officers and the Emperor are idiots. In short, the authorities are inept and the rot has sunk to the very bottom, so much so that on several occasions Schwejk has to take charge of his own arrest as the men guarding him are too drunk.
The Austrian-Hungarian army is depicted as being in utter chaos as witnessed by the complete disarray when it comes to moving troops to the front. Soldiers are loaded then unloaded on and off trains; trains are sent in the wrong direction; some soldiers are left at stations, apparently forgotten, without supplies and forced to beg for food.
This is an army which instead of providing its men with arms or food gives them postcards or sends out orders to reduce rations on items the soldiers have never received in the first place. In fact, Regimental Paymaster Wanek notes that rations seem to get smaller the nearer they get to the front. While the rank and file starve, supplies are stolen as a matter of course whether it’s Generals stockpiling goods or regimental paymasters helping themselves. Corruption and profiteering are rife.
In cahoots with the military is the Catholic Church who happily conducts mass before sending young men to be annihilated. Most of the churchmen in the novel are depicted as drunks, womanizers, idiots or, as in the case of the Archbishop of Budapest, extremely bloodthirsty. Army chaplain Katz is a particularly great comedy creation, a drunk that could give Father Jack, a run for his money, he is not only prone to falling down drunk while jumbling up the mass, wearing his vestments back to front, pawning stolen property and mistaking a floor lamp for a telephone, he also happens to be Jewish. Mind you, as the narrator notes, so is the firm that produces all the best church accoutrements in Vienna. Katz also has no moral qualms in selling Schwejk to a fellow officer, First Lieutenant Lukasch, to pay off a gambling debt.
Hašek also finds time to target the ineptness of military propaganda whose ludicrous posters and pamphlets about unbelievable acts of bravery the soldiers find much better uses for! (Again don’t ask!) The disingenuousness of such propaganda is highlighted when Army Volunteer Marek becomes the battalion historian and writes up all the battalion’s supposed victories in advance, making them increasingly more impressive as he goes on. And there’s no doubt Marek has a vivid imagination, particularly when it comes to inventing the future deaths of his brothers-in-arms including that of Sergeant-Major Houska, who Marek decides is still able to walk a few steps, aim and shoot down an enemy plane despite having had his head blown off by a mine. Likewise, the empty, supposedly patriotic gestures of the public are satirised too when we see a couple of society ladies visit Schwejk’s regiment, where one pats a soldier in passing who assumes she’s just a brazen – if rather unattractive – whore.
Austrian-Hungarian justice doesn’t fare any better. Military investigator Bernis is highly respected despite his inability to complete files and his skill in mixing up both names and cases while inventing new ones out of thin air, accusing people of crimes they wouldn’t dream of committing and sentencing thieves for desertion and vice versa. A modus operandi helped by his insistence on dispensing with evidence or even finding out what crime the defendant has been accused of, opting instead to rely solely on his observation of their behaviour and physiognomy.
Among all the wit, however, Hašek makes you think. Take when the narrator views the soldiers, just out of hospital and on their way back to the front to “receive new wounds, mutilations and pains and a simple wooden cross” and visualises them as future carrion for birds or when Schwejk views the photos hanging on the wall of Bernis’ office. “Artistic pictures of burnt out huts and trees, whose branches dipped from the weight of people strung from them. Particularly successful was a photograph from Serbia of a family that had been hung. A small boy, father and mother. Two soldiers with bayonets watching the tree with the hanging corpses, and some officer standing in the foreground and smoking a cigarette. On the other side in the background a field kitchen could be seen hard at work.”
It is the seemingly casual way that death is treated that makes the satire all the more biting, often through the prism of throwaway remarks such as Sapper Woditschka relating how he used to get cigarettes every time he hung a rebel soldier.
Not only is the satire biting, it is also extremely funny. Hašek depicts an absurd world where Schwejk’s apparent idiocy seems to safeguard him from all harm, while managing to wreak havoc for everyone else around him. Perhaps the funniest example is when fellow Czech, First Lieutenant Lukasch, sends him on a delicate mission to hand over a love letter to a married Hungarian woman, emphasising that on no account must anyone find out about the letter. Needless to say nothing goes to plan. Not only does the husband find out, Schwejk ends up in jail, the matter becomes a national cause célèbre with outraged Hungarian newspapers clamouring for questions to be asked in the Hungarian Parliament.
It’s hard to get across how funny this book is because it’s all in the turn of phrase, the vivid characters, absurd situations and striking images Hašek creates. I found myself laughing out loud throughout. The novel is a masterclass in how to write comedy. And like all great comedy, no matter how absurd, it is, at heart, truthful and very human.
While recently in Prague, I was told by a Czech if you understand The Good Soldier Schwejk, you understand the Czechs. My knowledge of Czech culture is minimal but ironically what struck me about this book is how Austrian it seemed to me. For me the humour and absurdity are a clear antecedent to such Austrian novels as Die große Hitze oder die Errettung Österreichs durch den Legationsrat Dr Tuzzi (The Great Heat or How Legationsrat Dr Tuzzi Saved Austria) by Jörg Mauthe or any of the Brenner novels by Wolf Haas. And it made me realise that a style I may perceive, thanks to my (admittedly) limited literary tastes, as particularly Austrian, may in fact be far more universal.
The novel states “It is a historical picture of a particular time.” And in a sense that’s true. We are most definitely in the dying days of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire but there is a universality to the trials and tribulations of The Good Soldier Schwejk, in this struggle of the little man facing unenviable odds against a world out of kilter, a struggle, made all the more comforting as he somehow always seems to come out on top.
In times such as these, when the world seems to be out of kilter once more, it is perhaps reassuring to read such a well-written and moreover extremely funny satire where the bastards don’t get to grind our hero down!
*All quotes from the novel have been translated by me from a German translation by Grete Reiner of the Czech text.
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