Context: Borrowed a guitar while I was reading this as mine’s in PNG.
Švejk is one of literatures great great characters. If English did not so dominate the world of writing, he would be more widely known. He’d also be more widely known if Hašek had been a better writer technically. While his characterisation is wonderful, his narrative skills little short of genius and his satire razor-sharp, this is balanced by a lack of scenario that tended to leave me bored at times. Did he achieve what he set out to do? Absolutely. It just wasn’t as interesting nearly a hundred years on as it would have been when the ashes of the Austro-Hungarian empire were still warm.
Švejk is a Czech genius who fakes idiocy in order to get away with a whole host of misdemeanours and petty crimes as he’s drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army and sent to the front. The book is long – over 700 pages – and covers his journey to within sniffing distance of the fighting.
At this point, Hašek died and so the book died with him. I knew this from the introduction and, I have to say, it was very disheartening when struggling through some of the more boring bits, to keep remembering that the book doesn’t have an ending. However, this sudden termination of the book does not stop it being a success. Hašek was not writing to develop plot, he was writing a biting satire of the administration of his day and he achieves this masterfully. Check this out:
Preparations for the slaughter of mankind have always been made in the name of God or some supposed higher being which men have devised and created in their own imagination.
Before the ancient Phoenicians cut a prisoner’s throat they also performed religious ceremonies just as solemnly as did new generation some thousand years later before marching to war and destroying their enemies with fire and sword.
The cannibals of the Guinea Islands and Polynesia sacrifice to their gods and perform the most diverse religious rites before ceremoniously devouring their captives or unnecessary people like missionaries, travellers, agents of various business firms or persons who are just inquisitive. As the cultural vestments have not yet reached them they decorate the outsides of their thighs with bunches of gaudy feathers of forest birds.
Before the Holy Inquisiton burnt its victims, it performed the most solemn religious service – a High Mass with singing.
When criminals are executed, priests always officiate, molesting the delinquents with their presence.
In Prussia the unfortunate victim was led to the block by a pastor, in Austria to the gallows by a Catholic priest, in France to the guillotine, in America to the electric chair by a clergyman and in Spain to a chair where he was strangled by an ingenious appliance. In Russia the revolutionary was taken off by a bearded Orthodox priest etc.
Everywhere on these occasions they used to march about with a crucifix Christ figure, as if to say: ‘They’re only cutting your head off, they’re only hanging you, strangling you, putting fifteen thousand volts into you, but think what that chap there had to go through.’
The great shambles of the world war did not take place without the blessing of priests. Chaplains of all armies prayed and celebrated drumhead masses for victory for the side whose bread they ate.
Throughout all Europe people went to the slaughter like cattle, driven there not only by butcher emperors, kings and other potentates and generals, but also by priests of all confessions, who blessed them and made them perjure themselves that they would destroy the enemy on land, in the air, on the sea etc.
On his journey to the front, Švejk meets up with a whole bunch of characters, most of them military. The writing is almost wholly composed however of tiny stories that Švejk tells. Every time he gets a chance, he goes off on rabbit trails with these anecdotes. While it shows the remarkable skill of Hašek as a story-teller, I began to sympathise with the panoply of characters who are driven mad by this trait of . One corporal’s response is typical, as is Švejk’s retort:
‘I’ve had enough of this,’ shouted the corporal.
‘Then you’re a happy man,’ said Švejk. ‘Many people never have enough.’
I found my mind wandering through many of these stories, some pages long, some only a few lines and I kind of longed for something to happen. There are a few scenic diversions but again, it’s really just more of Švejk telling stories and driving people mad – just in a different place and with a different bunch of people.
The literary significance of the book is huge. It was one of the first anti-war novels and while reading it, I kept thinking of Catch 22 which I read decades ago and loved. It seems that Heller was directly influenced by reading Švejk.
Did I appreciate reading it? Yes, I did. It gave me an insight into a different side of World War 1 than I had heard before. It also gave me an insight into the culture of the Czech people and the political situation of the time. This was all valuable, and although not a captivating read, Švejk will be a character I’ll remember for a long while.
‘And so they’ve killed our Ferdinand,’ said the charwoman to Mr Švejk, who had left military service years before, after having been finally certified by an army medical board as an imbecile, and now lived by selling dogs – ugly, mongrel monstrosities whose pedigrees he forged.
I am reminded of that especially today when our troops will in foreseeable time be crossing the frontier.
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