Friday, July 25, 2014

'The Good Soldier Švejk': wince and guffaw at excerpts from Jaroslav Hašek's brilliant, timeless satire

Long before Catch 22's Joseph Heller skewered the bureaucratic idiocy of the military, Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek was doing the same, with a panache that provokes a laugh-out-loud, visceral response. A bohemian bon vivant, Hašek died of heart failure at the age of 39, but his legacy lives on in his 1923 classic, The Adventures Of The Good Soldier Švejk. (In fact, Heller once told Milos Forman in the late 1960s that he could not have written Catch-22 without first reading Hašek’s World War I novel, the German translation of which was publicly burned by the Nazis in 1933.) Originally published as a series of popular readings in Prague during 1921–1923, The Good Soldier Švejk has been adapted to a film, an opera, a musical, and a play by Bertolt Brecht. Peter Sellers even used quotes from Švejk in his movie A Shot in the Dark. Here's a nice capsule biography of Hašek from
“Born into the family of a high school teacher, he studied at a commercial academy, and later led a bohemian and vagrant life wandering through Bohemia, Hungary and Galicia. He was jailed briefly for alleged anarchist activities in 1907. Later he worked as the editor in several special-interest journals such as Ženský obzor (Women’s horizon) or Svět zvířat (Animal world), and simultaneously he published stories and interviews from the Prague underworld in various anarchist journals. Throughout his life he wrote several hundred humorous stories published in various journals and newspapers.
In 1911, he founded the ‘Party of Moderate Progress in the Limits of Law’, a parody of party politics and the election process. In 1915, Hašek was mobilized and sent to the Galician front, let himself be captured and entered the Czechoslovak legions in Russia. In 1918, though, he entered the Bolshevik Party and joined the Red Army as a political commissioner. After coming back to Prague in December 1920, he again devoted his energy to writing short-stories, feuilletons, humoresques, theatre sketches and so on…. The communists, in particular, tried to appropriate his legacy after the Second World War and turn him into a true revolutionary, which, however, proved unsuccessful due to his essentially non-conformist, bohemian and deeply sarcastic personality and writings…. The novel is constructed as a free series of scenes, conversations, and storytelling connected just by the central figure of Švejk. It is set first in Prague, then south Bohemia, Hungary and in the end, near the front-line in Galicia. One of the comic elements of the book is the use of language. Especially in dialogues, Hašek uses colloquial Czech including vulgarisms and slang neologisms, bureaucratic and military jargon, Austrian German, Hungarian, Polish as well as the language of academic writing and popular literature.”
Nothing is immune from Hašek's biting satire, as these quotes from his magnum opus suggest. (The wonderful illustrations throughout are the original ones, by Josef Lada.)
“After debauches and orgies there always follows the moral hangover.”
“And somewhere from the dim ages of history the truth dawned upon Europe that the morrow would obliterate the plans of today.”
“The lieutenant’s fooling around again with the telegraph girl at the station,” said the corporal, after he had gone. “He’s been running after her for a fortnight and he’s always frightfully furious when he comes from the telegraph office and he says about her: “She’s a whore. She won’t sleep with me!”
Life in a lunatic asylum: "I really don't know why those loonies get so angry when they're kept there. You can crawl naked on the floor, howl like a jackal, rage and bite. If anyone did this anywhere on the promenade people would be astonished, but there it's the most common or garden thing to do. There's a freedom there which not even Socialists have ever dreamed of.”
“All along the line,' said the volunteer, pulling the blanket over him, 'everything in the army stinks of rottenness. Up till now the wide-eyed masses haven't woken up to it. With goggling eyes they let themselves be made into mincemeat and then when they're struck by a bullet they just whisper, "Mummy!" Heroes don't exist, only cattle for the slaughter and the butchers in the general staffs. But in the end every body will mutiny and there will be a fine shambles. Long live the army! Goodnight!”
“The famous field altar came from the Jewish firm of Moritz Mahler in Vienna, which manufactured all kinds of accessories for mass as well as religious objects like rosaries and images of saints.
The altar was made up of three parts, liberally provided with sham gilt like the whole glory of the Holy Church.
It was not possible without considerable ingenuity to detect what the pictures painted on these three parts actually represented. What was certain was that it was an altar which could have been used equally well by heathens in Zambesi or by the Shamans of the Buriats and Mongols.
Painted in screaming colors it appeared from a distance like a coloured chart intended for colour-blind railway workers. One figure stood out prominently - a naked man with a halo and a body which was turning green, like the parson's nose of a goose which has begun to rot and is already stinking. No one was doing anything to this saint. On the contrary, he had on both sides of him two winged creatures which were supposed to represent angels. But anyone looking at them had the impression that this holy naked man was shrieking with horror at the company around him, for the angels looked like fairy-tale monsters and were a cross between a winged wild cat and the beast of the apocalypse.
Opposite this was a picture which was meant to represent the Holy Trinity. By and large the painter had been unable to ruin the dove. He had painted a kind of bird which could equally well have been a pigeon or a White Wyandotte. God the Father looked like a bandit from the Wild West served up to the public in an American film thriller.
The Son of God on the other hand was a gay young man with a handsome stomach draped in something like bathing drawers. Altogether he looked a sporting type. The cross which he had in his hand he held as elegantly as if it had been a tennis racquet. Seen from afar, however, all these details ran into each other and gave the impression of a train going into a station.”
If you love that you'll want to click through to read a hilarious chapter from the novel about a visit from the well-intentioned Baroness von Botzenheim, come to distribute largesse to the wounded.
The time for the doctor’s afternoon round approached. Dr Grünstein went from bed to bed, followed by the medical orderly officer with his notebook.
“Enema and aspirin. Pokorný?”
“Stomach pump and quinine! Kovařík?”
“Enema and aspirin! Koťátko?”
“Stomach pump and quinine!”
And so it went on, one after the other, mercilessly, mechanically, briskly.
Dr Grünstein looked at the new acquisition.
“What’s the matter with you?”
“Humbly report, I’ve got rheumatism!”
In the course of his practice Dr Grünstein had grown accustomed to be gently ironic, which was much more effective than shouting.
“Aha, rheumatism,” he said to Švejk. “Then you’ve got a jolly serious illness. It’s really a coincidence getting rheumatism just at a time when there is a world war on and you’ve got to go to the front. I think that you must be awfully sorry.”
“Humbly report, sir, I am awfully sorry.”
“Well, there you are, you see, he’s awfully sorry. It’s really awfully nice of you that with your rheumatism you’ve not forgotten us just at this particular moment. In peacetime a poor chap like him runs about like a young goat, but as soon as war breaks out he immediately gets rheumatism and suddenly his knees don’t work. Your knees hurt, I suppose?”
”Humbly report, they do, sir.”
“And you can’t sleep a wink the whole night, can you? Rheumatism’s very dangerous, painful and grave illness. We’ve already had good experience with rheumatics here. Strict diet and other treatment of ours have proved very effective. Here you’ll be fit quicker than in Piešany [A famous spa in Slovakia for the treatment of rheumatism' and you’ll march to the front like greased lightning.”
Turning to the hospital orderly he said:
“Write this down: Švejk, strict diet, stomach pump twice a day, enema once a day, and we’ll see how it goes after that. For the time being take him to the consulting room, pump his stomach and when he comes to, give him and enema, but a real good one, until he screams blue murder and his rheumatism gets frightened and runs away.”
Then turning to all the beds the doctor made a speech full on noble and rational moral maxims:
“Don’t imagine that I’m just a bloody halfwit who swallows all your bull. Your tricks don’t rattle me in the least. I know you’re all malingerers and you want to desert from the war. And I’ll treat you as such. I’ve survived hundreds and hundreds of soldiers like you. Masses of people have lain on beds here who had nothing wrong with them at all except that they hadn’t got a soldier’s guts. While their comrades were fighting on the battlefield they thought they’d lounge about in bed, get hospital rations and wait until the war flew by. But they all found they’d made a bloody mistake, and all of you’ll find you’ve made a bloody mistake too. In twenty years time you’ll be still screaming in your sleep, when you dream of how you tried it on with me.”
“Humbly report, sir,” came a gentle voice from the bed at the window, “I’m well again. I notice in the night that my asthma’s gone.”
“Your name?”
“Kovařík. Humbly report, I have to have an enema.”
“Good, you’ll still get an enema for the road,” Dr Grünstein decided, “so that you don’t complain that we didn’t give you treatment here. Now, all the patients whose names I’ve read out, fall in and follow the orderly, so that each can get what’s due to him.”
And each one got a handsome dose of what had been prescribed. And if any of them tried to work on those who were executing the orders by means of prayers of threats that they might too once join the medical corps and the executioners might fall into their hands, Švejk at least bore himself with steadfastness.
“Don’t spare me,” he invited the myrmidon who was giving him the enema. “Remember your oath. Even if it was your father or your own brother who was lying here, give him an enema without batting an eyelid. Try hard to think that Austria rests on these enemas and victory is ours.”
The next day on his round Dr Grünstein asked Švejk how he was enjoying being in the military hospital.
Švejk answered that it was a fair and high-minded institution. In reward he received the same as the day before plus aspirin and three quinine powders which they dissolved into water so that he should drink them at once.
And not even Socrates drank his hemlock bowl with such composure as did Švejk his quinine, when Dr Grünstein was trying out on him all his various degrees of torture.
When they wrapped Švejk up in a wet sheet in the presence of the doctor his answer to the question how he liked it now was: “Humbly report, sir, it’s like being in a swimming pool or at the seaside.”
“Have you still got rheumatism?”
“Humbly report, sir, it doesn’t seem to want to get better.”
Švejk was subjected to new tortures.
 At that time the widow of the infantry general, Baroness von Botzenheim, took great pains to find that soldier about whom Bohemie had recently published a report that, cripple as he was, he had had himself pushed in a bath chair shouting: “To Belgrade!”; which patriotic pronouncement induced the editorial staff of Bohemie to invite their reader to organize collections in aid of the loyal and heroic cripple.
Finally, after inquiries at police headquarters it was ascertained that the man in question was Švejk and after that it was easy to make a search for him. Baroness von Botzenheim went to the Hradčany taking with her her lady companion and her footman with a hamper.
The poor baroness had no idea what it meant for someone to be lying in the hospital of the garrison gaol. Her visiting card opened the prison door for her, in the office they were awfully nice to her, and in five minutes she learnt that “the good soldier Švejk,” whom she was looking for, lay in the third hut, bed number seventeen. She was accompanied by Dr Grünstein himself, who was quite flabbergasted by it. […]
“Everybody in bed! An archduchess is coming here. Don’t anyone dare show his dirty legs outside the bed.”
And not even an archduchess could have entered the ward with such dignity as did Baroness von Botzenheim. After her the whole suite poured in, including even the quartermaster sergeant-major of the hospital who saw in all this the mysterious hand of Accounts Control, which was going to tear him away from his fat feeding trough at the base and deliver him to the tender mercies of the shrapnel somewhere under the barbed wire posts.
He was pale, but Dr Grünstein was even paler. Before his eyes there danced the old baroness’s small visiting card with her title, “Widow of a general,” and everything which could be associated with it like connections, protection, complaints, transfer to the front and other frightful things.
“Here you have Švejk,” he said, endeavoring to preserve an artificial composure and leading the Baroness von Botzenheim to Švejk’s bed. “He behaves with great patience.”
Baroness von Botzheim sat down on the chair prepared for her at Švejk’s bed and said: “Tshech zoldier, goot zoldier, krippl—zoldier iss brafe zoldier. I lof fery moch Tshech Austrian.”
At that she stroked Švejk on his unshaven cheeks and went on:
“I reat eferyzink in ze newspapers, I brink you yum yum, zomzink to bite, to shmoke, to zuck, Tshech zoldier, goot zoldier. Johann, come here!”
Her footman, whose bristly side-whiskers recalled the notorious killer Babinský, dragged a voluminous hamper to the bed, while the old baroness’s companion, a tall lady with a tearful face, sat down on Švejk’s bed and smoothed out his straw pillow under his back with the fixed idea that this was what ought to be done for sick heroes.
In the meantime the baroness drew presents out of the hamper: a dozen roast chickens wrapped up in pink silk paper and tied with a yellow and black silk ribbon, two bottles of a war liqueur with the label: “Gott strafe England” [“May God punish England.”] On the back of the label was a picture of Franz Joseph and Wilhelm clasping hands as though they were going to play the nursery game: “Bunny sat alone in his hole. Poor little bunny, what’s wrong with you that you can’t hop!”
Then she took out of the hamper three bottles of wine for the convalescent and two boxes of cigarettes. She set out everything elegantly on the empty bed next to Švejk’s, where she also put a beautifully bound book, Stories from the life of our Monarch, which had been written by the present meritorious chief editor of our official Czechoslovak Republic who doted on old Franz. Packets of chocolate with the same inscription, “Gott strafe England,” and again with pictures of the Austrian and German emperors, found their way to the bed. On the chocolate they were no longer clasping hands; each was acting on his own and turning his back to the other. There was a beautiful toothbrush with two rows of bristles and the inscription “Viribus unitis,” so that anyone who cleaned his teeth should remember Austria. An elegant and extremely useful little gift for the front and the trenches was a manicure set. On the case was a picture showing shrapnel bursting and a man in a steel helmet rushing forward with fixed bayonet. And underneath it was written in German: “For God, Emperor and Fatherland!” There was a tin of biscuits without a picture on it but with a verse in German instead, together with a Czech translation on the back:
Austria, thou noble house,
 Thy banners wide unfurl!
 Thy flags shall flutter proud on high.
 Austria shall never die!
The last gift was a white hyacinth in a flowerpot.
When all of this lay unpacked on the bed the Baroness von Botzenheim could not restrain her tears for emotion. Several famished malingerers felt their mouths water. The baroness’s companion propped up the seated Švejk and wept too. There was a silence of the grave which was suddenly broken by Švejk who said with his hands clasped in prayer:
“Our father, which art in heaven, hallow be Thy name. Thy kingdom come … Pardon me, your ladyship, it’s not right. I mean to say: O God our father in heaven, bless for us these gifts that we may enjoy them thanks to Thy goodness. Amen.”
After these words he took a chicken from the bed and starting to devour it under the horrified gaze of Dr Grünstein.
“Ach, how he enjoys it, poor soldier,” the old baroness whispered enthusiastically to Dr Grünstein. “He’s certainly well again and can go to the battlefield. I’m really very glad that my gifts stand him in such good stead.”
Then she walked from bed to bed, distributing cigarettes and chocolate creams. When she came back again to Švejk after her promenade, she stroked his hair, said in German: “God protect you all!” and went out of the door with her whole escort.
Before Dr Grünstein could return from below, where he had gone see the baroness out, Švejk had distributed the chickens. They were bolted by the patients so quickly that Dr Grünstein found only a heap of bones gnawed cleanly, as though the chickens had fallen alive into a nest of vultures and the sun had been beating down on their gnawed bones for several months.
The war liqueur and the three bottles of wine had also disappeared. The packets of chocolate and the box of biscuits were likewise lost in the patients’ stomachs. Someone had even drunk up the bottle of nail-polish which was in the manicure set and eaten the toothpaste which had been enclosed with the toothbrush.
Translated by Cecil Parrott in Jaroslav Hašek: The Good Soldier Švejk and his Fortunes in the World War (Penguin Books).
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  1. A bohemian life in Bohemia! That's a first!

  2. Humbly report, ma’am, this is a good post. I finally read Svejk in March, and there’s no doubt that Catch-22 (originally called Catch-18) is a direct descendant.

    As you note, there are remarkable short sections in the book. It's interesting, though, that 800 pages into his story, when Jasek died, the soldiers are – finally – just getting to the battlefield. The author had intended to make his story twice as long!

    Some favorite passages of mine include:
    "… Lieutenant Lukás… kept thundering at Svejk throughout the journey that he was the Almighty’s choicest quadruped..."
    “I served under Chaplain Katz and he could have drunk his own nose away."
    “You’re a piece of defunct grey matter.”
    "But he understood as much about [a card game] as a goat about parsley.”
    “I’ve had enough of this,” shouted the corporal. “Then you’re a happy man,” said Svejk. “Many people never have enough.”
    "Although Biegler was as weak as steam over a pot the specialist pronounced him fit for service."

    And this remarkable description of a battlefield: "The excrement of solders of all nationalities and of confessions lay side by side or heaped on top of one another without quarreling among themselves."

    1. J. Hasek, not Jasek. It's after midnight, and I've had a long day.

    2. God i love these! thanks so much. (humbly; Hasek did most of it)