Hašek's Good Soldier Švejk

Thirty-nine-year-old Jaroslav Hašek died on this day in 1923, while still at work on his rollicking, episodic WWI novel, The Good Soldier Švejk. Few would argue that the satire is skillfully written or that its unfinished -- some would say unfinishable -- state matters much. The 800-page story has humor "on a level with Cervantes and Rabelais" (Max Brod) and an international readership, but it has a special, enduring appeal at home. Asked in a 2004 survey to pick their all-time favorite novel of world literature, readers in the Czech Republic ranked The Good Soldier Švejk in twelfth place. There are "Švejk-style" pubs across the country, Švejk postal stamps, Švejk statues, and Švejk images everywhere -- reproductions of the character as he appeared in hundreds of illustrations done by Josef Lada for the first edition. These capture the essential, irrepressible trait of the Good Soldier, whether marching toward or away from battle, or around in circles:

"Take that idiotic expression off your face."
"I can't help it," replied Švejk solemnly. "I was discharged from the army for idiocy and officially certified by a special commission as an idiot. I'm an official idiot."

Švejk's official certification is the opposite from that given Joseph Heller's Yossarian, who cannot achieve crazy status no matter what he does, but the result is the same. At every out-of-step, the Good Soldier shows his superiors to be the real fools and war to be a bad joke, one made bearable only by being embraced as such. In Part III, Švejk's military progress is such that he finds himself bound for the front (also known as "The Great Licking"), sent off with a speech lifted from the army handbook and delivered inspirationally by the chaplain -- a man who, Švejk has heard, "drivels utter bunkum." The Good Soldier is impressed with the chaplain's message and eager to pass its comfort on to his comrades:

Won't it be marvelous when, like the chaplain said, the day draws to its close, the sun with its golden beams sets behind the mountains, and on the battlefields are heard, as he told us, the last breath of the dying, the death-rattle of the fallen horses, the groans of the wounded and the wailing of the population, as their cottages burn over their heads. I love it when people drivel utter bunkum.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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