The Good Soldier Schweik

by Jaroslav Hašek

The Good Soldier Schweik is said to be one of the most famous pieces of Czech literature that exists, if not the most famous. It’s at least the most widely-translated and far-reaching novel to come out of the region, with lasting influences on language and culture in the Czech Republic and elsewhere. In this way, it may sound like Iraj Pezeshkzad’s My Uncle Napoleon––honestly an apt comparison, especially since both are delightful wartime satires. Where Pezeshkzad’s story so successfully captured the zeitgeist of paranoia toward the British in his Iran, however, Hašek’s likely resonated so well because he hit on the futility, corruption, hypocrisy, and idiocy typified by those in positions of power during such a terrible conflict as World War I.

In Hašek’s story, the titular good soldier, Josef Schweik, (more commonly spelled Švejk from what I can tell, but written as the phonetic English Schweik in the edition I read,) enthusiastically bumbles his way through the bureaucratic nightmare of Austria-Hungary to try and do his part after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the outbreak of war, often getting further from the action the harder he tries to take part in it. The prose employed put me very much in mind with other satires I’ve quite enjoyed––Voltaire’s Candide or Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, for example––where a happy or innocent tone taken toward serious or even horrific subjects underscores the absurdity behind them, but this could be one of those cases where my experience is framed by the specific translation. (The edition I read was the original English translation by Paul Selver, which is said to be heavily abridged, reducing the book to two-thirds of its original length. Should I revisit the book, I’d likely try to get my hands on the Cecil Parrott translation for comparison. Though it was the first unabridged translation, I’ve heard it criticized as being far too literal; the Selver translation apparently approached Hašek’s humour and slang far less awkwardly than Parrott.)

An unavoidable problem with The Good Soldier Schweik is its abruptness, and it’s definitely a good thing to have in mind if you decide to pick it up. Originally intended to consist of six books, the author passed away before completing the fourth, leaving our protagonist in the lurch by the end. Though this is obviously far from ideal, Hašek still had plenty of time to play with his portrayal of Schweik in a way that alters the reader’s view of him over the course of the story, and I’d suggest this as another major source of the magic behind the book. It’s easy to fall for Schweik’s affable charm and see him initially as an innocent buffoon, but we start to catch brief glimpses of him as something closer to a quick-witted conman as the plot progresses. And, I mean, the journey through this character arc is pretty funny, so you can’t really go wrong there.