Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Good Soldier Schweik
Reviewed by Michael Kihntopf

The Good Soldier Schweik and His Fortunes in the World War

By Jaroslav Hašek, Translated by Paul Selver
Published by The Sun Dial Press Inc., 1937

Long before there was Catch 22 and M*A*S*H*, there was The Good Soldier Schweik, a farcical rendition of life in the Austro-Hungarian Army during the Great War. In 448 pages, Jaroslav Hašek follows the ordeal of a Czech soldier, classified by the army’s higher-ups as an imbecile, as he progresses from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to the bloody fields of Galicia. But unlike the two other classics about army life there is no black humor or call to end all wars, nor is it pro- or anti-war. Instead, Hašek tells the story of a patriotic common man caught up in a world that views simple direct answers to complicated questions as suspected treason, insubordination, or just plain stupidity.

We meet Josef Schweik as he dresses one morning in preparation for a visit to the Flagon, his favorite pub. During the preparation he tells his housekeeper that the war is coming because of the assassination of the archduke, whom he confuses with another Ferdinand he knew some years previous, and that if the army can’t bring about a swift victory, he will have to intervene. At the Flagon, he quickly falls afoul of the secret police who are out rounding up all the usual suspects, for unpatriotic remarks regarding the assassination. The pub owner is also hauled away for allowing two flies to soil the emperor’s picture that hangs in the establishment. Our protagonist is released after a brief stay in a lunatic asylum because state doctors determine that “his mental state is dangerous to his surroundings.”

Returning to his home, he finds that, in light of the high casualties in Serbia and Galicia, he has been recalled to his regiment, the 91st, of which he is exceedingly proud. On the day he is to report Schweik’s rheumatism flares up. Nevertheless, he will not be denied entry into the army. He has his housekeeper borrow a wheelchair and crutches from a neighbor and buys a military cap that he wears as a badge of distinction. As his housekeeper wheels him through the ancient city of Prague to his induction physical he shouts slogans such as “Strafe England” and “Long Live the Emperor” to passersby. Soon a patriotic mob is following him shouting the same slogans thinking that he is a war veteran returning to the trenches despite his injuries. Police are brought in to disperse the crowd and Schweik is almost arrested for inciting a riot. Only his call-up letter saves him from jail.

Schweik is wheeled in front of a board of doctors who ask pointed questions about his health. When he reveals that he has rheumatism the doctors call him a liar, a charlatan, who is attempting to get out of serving his country. Over Schweik’s protests in which he states he is willing to die for the emperor, the doctors, who view his patriotism as false, send him off to detention for a cure. Over the next few months his charge papers are lost and he is sent off to his regimental depot where he begins an army career as a batman for a boozing chaplain, who uses trophies for chalices, and finally moves on to an infantry lieutenant, who has a multitude of women fawning after him. In both capacities, the reader is introduced to some of the most despicable characters in the Austro-Hungarian Army through ordeals with his charges’ friends.

But Schweik never loses his desire to get in the war and sacrifice his life for the emperor. Later, when facing the enemy he does not lose his nerve or reason. When a comrade shows fear that he might get shot first when acting as advance soldier, Schweik tells him, “Well, go in advance then…. We’ll keep close behind you and when you’re shot, just let us know, so as we can duck down in good time.” Regrettably, Jaroslav Hašek never completed Schweik’s story. By the time he had reached the final chapters he was dictating them to a friend, too ill to write them himself. The reader is left with Schweik trying on a Russian uniform as Hungarian cavalry approach.

The author was born in 1883 to a pauper’s existence. His father died of alcoholism when Hašek was thirteen and he dropped out of school to support his family at the age of fifteen. Over the years he was a bank teller, dog salesmen, and a freelance writer. In 1907 he became an anarchist, which served as a reason for numerous arrests and short jail terms. He rejoined the army in the first year of the war and was captured by the Russians in 1915. He joined the Czechoslovak Legion in 1916 but refused to follow them across Siberia in 1918, preferring to stay with the Red Army. Repatriated in 1920, he found himself not in favor with those who had established the new Czechoslovak nation. It was only after his death in 1923 and the publication of this work that popular sentiment saw him as one of the notable Czech writers.

As I mentioned in the beginning, The Good Soldier Schweik, is neither anti- nor pro-war. It is about how the common soldier, devoid of politics and unaware of why there is a war, carries on despite his surroundings. At times Schweik appears to be a blithering idiot, but the reader is also enticed into thinking that he is much more cunning and clever than he gives out. Who else could sell a Pomeranian dog as a purebred beagle? The book is a grand relief from the pessimism of Erich Remarque and the blood of Ernst Jünger.

Michael Kihntopf

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