Tropos Kynikos: Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Švejk

   page  
A 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42
43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61
62 63 64 65 66 67 68

The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek    27

heroism, loyalty, or justice) sharply polarized its readership along ideological lines. The "good" soldier Švejk prompted supporters of the traditional social order to jeer and the revolu­tionaries to cheer; in short, Hašek's novel became a convenient arena in which the representatives of the right and the left could settle scores. Such a political reading of the novel was further facilitated by two extratextual circumstances: the emergence of Švejk as a behavioral model and Hašek's conduct during World War I.

From the very beginning, reviewers of the book have proclaimed that its protagonist is an original literary type. The Communist writer, and Hašek's erstwhile friend, Ivan Olbracht, observed in 1921: "In world liter­ature Švejk is an entirely new type: human phlegma captured from a new aspect.... a man pleasantly at contrast with the bothersome type of 'prob­lematic characters' who 'are dissatisfied with every situation because they were created for none.' For Švejk is satisfied with any situation and pre­vails in each one of them. A smart idiot, perhaps an idiot savant, who through his stupid but cunning good nature must win everywhere be­cause it is impossible for him not to win: this is Švejk." Olbracht's descrip­tion of Hašek's figure is quite sensible, I believe, but he should have stopped there. To explain Švejk's popular appeal, however, he conceived of "Švejkism" as a specific human trait, which, moreover, "could not have been noticed earlier or with such clarity anywhere but in the Czech lands, with their strange attitude toward state authority and the War."5 Hence, the archetype of Švejk as an embodiment of the Czech national character was born.

It would, however, be unfair to blame Olbracht alone for this crude con­flation of art and social psychology. Švejk, it seems, stepped out of the lit­erary realm prior to his review. As Hašek himself witnessed and recorded in the "Epilogue to Part I" of his novel, even before the first volume was finished, the proper name of its protagonist had ceased to be a rigid des­ignator and had become a general lexical item. "I do not know whether I will succeed in achieving my purpose with this book," Hašek complained fastidiously. "The fact that I have already heard one man swear at another and say 'You are as stupid as Švejk' suggests that I have not. But if the word 'Švejk' becomes a new curse in the already florid garland of execra­tion, I must be content with this enrichment of the Czech language."6 And it is not important whether this story is true or

5 Ivan Olbracht, "Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války," Rudé právo, November 15, 1921, pp. 3-4.

6 Jaroslav Hašek, Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války, ed. Z. Ančík et al. (Prague, 1954), p. 234. The English translation of the novel is taken, with some minor changes, from The Good Soldier Švejk and his Fortunes in the World War, trans. C. Parrott (London, 1973), p. 216. Further references will be given in the text; the first number in parentheses refers to the Czech original and the second to the English translation.

A 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42
43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61
62 63 64 65 66 67 68
   page