Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk,  ‘a certified idiot,’ tickles us into an anti-war, anti-militarism, anti-bureaucracy mood the more we read. Unlike the occupant of its more recent cousin, Catch-22, Švejk doesn’t match Yosarrian’s determined self-concern and noncooperation, nor Hašek  Heller’s fury at the carnage and stupidity. Švejk’s method is an amiable stupidity which, which along with extreme cooperation with everyone and everything, makes serious business impossible.

The novel we have now, is actually 4 of the original 6 Hašek planned.  Each of the existing ‘parts’ is roughly 200 pages, so it’s not a light undertaking to read the entire work, as amusing and revealing as it mostly is. Since it is sometimes spoken of as the first anti-war novel, and claimed by Joseph Heller to be the novel that released Catch-22 in him, since Max Brod, Kafka’s friend and publisher compared Hašek to Rabelais and Cervantes, many may want to put The Good Soldier on their list of big 20th century novels to read.  That Czechs today are said to identify Švejk as their national prototype — allowing them to get through 40 years of Soviet control— adds to our reason to read.

Part One, “Behind the Lines,” introduces us to Švejk before he has actually joined the fighting of WW I: the news of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s death, Švejk’s ‘patriotism’ and his rejoining the army despite the rheumatism in his knees, his being placed as a ‘batman’ (orderly) first to a chaplain, then to a dog-loving Lieutenant and finally being sent off to the front.

In fact, to re-volunteer in the Austrian army he is pushed in a wheel chair.  He is quickly discovered, on the basis of his responses to the recruiter’s questions, to be a certified idiot, which he amiably confirms.

“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.”

 He spends a few days in jail, with other deserters and criminals, to whom he cheerfully tells how lucky they are to be in jail now, when they have their own bunks, are served bread and water and the latrine is right under their noses, instead of like the old days with quarterings, and Spanish boots.  Prison is followed by a few days in a hospital where “in these great times the army doctors took unusual pains to drive the devil of sabotage out of the malingerers and restore them to the bosom of the army,” with daily stomach pumpings and massive, repeated enemas, even for nearsightedness, all of which Švejk takes in stride. ‘You should have seen it in the last war…’ is his reply, embedded in another long, amusing, if dark, story.

“My cousin was so fortunate as to have his arm cut off under the elbow and today he has no trouble for the rest of the war…”

One needn’t know much about WW I, or the place of the Czech people and culture in the Hapsburg empire to enjoy the novel. In fact, reading it you will learn quite a bit. The opening line announces the death of ‘our Ferdinand’ by a Slav assassin’s bullet while in Sarajevo. Švejk pitches right in to explain things, as a ‘disinterested’ observer, and a Czech, restive under Austrian rule.

“Did he give him one bang, or several,” Mrs Muller?

“The newspaper says, sir, that His Imperial Highness was riddled like a sieve. He emptied all his cartridges into him.”

“Well, it goes jolly quickly, Mr Muller… I’d buy a Browning for a job like that. It looks like a toy but in a couple of minutes you can shoot twenty archdukes with it, never mind if they’re fat or thin.”

And where was it done?

“In Sarajevo! That’s in Bosnia, Mrs. Muller. I expect the Turks did it. You know we ought never to have taken Bosnia and Herzogovina from them…”

After almost every sentence, twenty more follow by way of explanation.  Švejk is a non-stop story teller, someone who uses a simple simile but then needs a whole paragraph to remind his listener what such-and-such was ‘like.”  Everything reminds him of something else.  It’s how he explains what he’s thinking, to our amusement and the exasperation of others. Embarking on a long story to give an example of his own idiocy, he is stopped.

Švejk!  the lieutenant burst out in fury. ‘Once more I order you not to tell me anymore stories.  I don’t want to hear them!

Švejk never takes offense.  He agrees and understands, and to show his understanding he embarks on another story.

He is amiable to a fault.  To a man in jail he says,

“I think we should be fair about everything… After all, anybody can and must make mistakes, the more he thinks about things… Once in Nusle, just by the bridge across the Botič, a gentleman came up to me in the night.. and hit me over the head with a knout.  When I was lying on the ground he flashed his torch on me and said ‘It’s a mistake.  It’s not him.’  And he got so angry because he’d made a mistake that he hit me on the back again.  It’s only human nature that a chap should go on making mistakes until he dies.”

There you have his essence: a story in place of a homily; a simple, and deliberate(?), misapplication of a word, in this case ‘mistake,’ and Švejk’s own sweetness, unmodified by his experience. [It is not agreed by critics whether Švejk is an actual idiot, or a canny man.  It doesn’t matter however. Either way the foibles of others and the actual idiocy of the army and war are well lit.]

We begin to see why the Czech people have loved Švejk over the years.  There was no Czech Republic at the time.  But a sense of a Czech nation had been rising for many decades.  Šveck is caught between two worlds — being an Austrian citizen and drafted into its armies, while feeling himself a Czech, and therefore, against most of what he was being asked to do.  Sly quips and double entendres amuse us all through the book.  The draconian, though inept, Austrian state, and army, is poked and prodded from beginning to end.

After the assassination of the Archduke the undercover agents and informers go into full swing.  A man is sitting alone at a table when a gentleman comes up to him, sits down opposite and says to him quickly:

“Have you read it?”
“No.”
“Do you know about it?”
“No.”
“And do you know what it’s about?”
“No, I’m not interested.”
“But you ought to be interested.”
“I don’t know what I ought to be interested in.  I just smoke my cigar, drink my few glasses, have my supper and don’t read the newspapers.  The newspapers tell lies.  Why should I get excited?”
“And so you’re not even interested in the murder at Sarajevo then?”
“I’m not interested in any murder at all, whether its at Prague, Vienna  Sarajevo or London.  For that there are authorities, courts and police  If at any time anywhere they kill anybody it only serves him right.  Why is he such a bloody careless fool to let himself get killed?”
Those were the last words of his conversation.  From that moment he went on repeating aloud at intervals of five minutes.
“I’m innocent.  I’m innocent.”

The themes of most war-skeptical books are followed: stupid orders, self-serving senior officers, sex, food, good discipline and attention to duty. Hašek had quite a bone to pick with the Roman Catholic Church (though not so great a one with the Orthodox) and he devotes a salacious chapter or two with Švejk as the batman of a Jewish Chaplain with a robust taste for communion wine and ‘representing someone who doesn’t exist and myself playing the part of God.’

Soldierly contempt for religious ceremonies is on display.

“The service and sermons … were… not a question of getting nearer to God, but of the hope of finding on the way in the corridor or in the courtyard a fag-end or a cigar-end.  A little fag-end, lying about hopelessly in a spittoon or somewhere in the dust on the floor, stole the show and God was nowhere.  That little stinking object triumphed over God and the salvation of the soul.”

Stupidity in high places has its honorable place.  The Lieutenant to whom Švejk is detailed is a dog-loving man, for whom Švejk dog-naps a fine pincer.  His opinion on the enemy?

 “What’s the point in taking prisoners?  They all ought to be shot.  No mercy. Dance among the corpses.  All the civilians in Serbia should be burnt to a man and the children finished off with the bayonet.”

Though without Heller’s brutal descriptions of wounds and maimings, Hasek manages a few, in which the irony turns from gentle to scathing.

“…the third class restaurants filled up with soldiers and civilians.  They were predominately soldiers of various regiments and formations and the most diverse nationalities whom the whirlwinds of war had swept into Tabor hospitals.  They were now going back to the front to get new wounds, mutilations and pains to earn the reward of a simple wooden cross over their graves.  Years after, on the mournful pains of East Galicia, a faded Austrian soldier’s cap … would flutter over it in wind and rain.  From time to time a miserable old carrion crow would perch on it, recalling fat feasts of bygone days when there used to be spread for him an unending table of human corpses and horse carcasses, when just under the cap on which he perched there lay the daintiest morsel of all — human eyes.”

As part II begins, Švejk  is on the train with the disgruntled Lt Lukas, being sent to the front for walking the General’s stolen dog.  Švejk sets about informing a Major-General in civilian clothes as to the meaning of his baldness. The Major-General furiously berates the Lieutenant for talking to his batman as if to an equal, thereby encouraging ‘the danger of the spread of democratic ideals.’   Švejk pulls the train emergency stop lever while trying to be informed as to its functioning. He is removed from the train, fined, and has his fine paid by a kindly patriot. Of course he drinks the fine away –with a Hungarian compatriot with whom all he can do is exchange gestures and the clink of toasting beer mugs. The front is not far away.

Update:  I see here that a new translation exists, which according to the reviewer is better than the Parrott which I read, lifting the sometimes pedestrian stringing of stories to a more engaging read — and settling the question I bracketed above, as to Švejk’s actual mental activity:  not an idiot at all, but one who lives by his wits feigning witlessness.  Have a look — available on line.