Most people read the story of The Good Soldier Svejk and his Fortunes in the World War as a comic novel. In fact, Svejk is one of world literature’s most desperate heroes.
It is a curious fact that the last century’s most famous soldier is so strikingly unmilitaristic: in a bulky unpressed uniform, unshaven, mostly shut away in some strafkompanie or in a cage. Does he ever have a weapon in his hands? A rifle strapped to his shoulder – yes. But in his hands? After more than half a dozen re-interpretations in different languages of Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Svejk and his Fortunes in the World War, I am still unsure.
I do not remember. Have I repressed?
One thing is for sure: he never shoots – no small thing in a war that cost at least fifteen million lives.
Josef Svejk remains a civilian even in the military. But who is he? We don’t know that much about him, no more than that he is a bachelor, speaks broken German, suffers from rheumatism and gets help in the home of a Mrs. Muller. Svejk makes a living by docking the tails of and, in emergencies, painting stolen dogs whose pedigrees are falsified in order to facilitate their sale. We suspect that most of his time is spent over beer tankards at The Golden Cup. In Prague’s street hubbub, we would not recognise him. In a disturbing way, Svejk seems to be without either biography or psychology. Nothing at all are we told about his feelings and inner motives.
He longs? Desires or loves? Is he upset, scared, or perhaps in despair? We do not know.
Neither does he have any family. Could there be some family ties, as is the case with Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities, Rabbi Löw’s homunculus Golem or Karel Capek’s robots? Throughout Svejk’s existence, there is something artificial. If there is life, it is something low and subhuman.
Had we not had the illustrator Josef Lada to rely on, Svejk would be even more anonymous than Franz Kafka’s heroes – one of whom was reduced to a single initial (K). Instead, Lada created the most accurate picture we could have of someone who does not really exist; he provided him with that rugged, cone-shaped little body and a consistently good-natured, mildly silly expression. Nothing in this physiognomy is changed by hardship, neither at the barracks, during transport to the front or in his cell. A human being – in any case, the novel’s hero – as an archive metre.
Lada has forever fixed Svejk’s appearance; to represent him in any other way would be simply impossible. There is no one who has read Jaroslav Hašek’s book that does not carry the image of the Good Soldier with them.
But our allegiance to Lada’s famous phantom image has paradoxically been made possible precisely because we know almost nothing about Svejk; by Lada letting him take shape out of nothing, he becomes so compelling. And there is nothing there that can question it, nothing there to cling to for those who would like to retouch the image.
Yet I would argue that Lada leads us astray. For his image of Svejk underlines everything that does not really belong there, that which is merely the surface, the good-natured and gregarious, the burlesquely hilarious. But Joseph Svejk’s good-natured calm is just a mask with which to rein-in fear. In fact, he is one of world literature’s most desperate, most lonely heroes. This has to do with that he is of a new time: an era in which the subordinate character or lackey has emancipated himself, where a Friday or Sancho Panza has got rid of Robinson Crusoe or Don Quixote to take the stage alone. The brave soldier’s superiors are indeed all interchangeable; they come and go and will eventually all disappear, while Svejk remains alone. Like one of his stolen mutts, he is a stray.
But this new era is also the beginning of the era of the masses and the machine gun – and now it’s war. Josef Svejk risks, like anyone else, being put into line and turned into a number. It would be fatal. For those who can be counted, who have lost all the letters that give them their name and identity are in the greatest danger. Now, the armed forces need soldiers to defend the fatherland as it is termed, though in practice they are but cannon fodder. Svejk’s opponent is not so much the Russian or Serbian, as this vast war machine that wants to kill him – hence his loneliness and desperation.
There seems to be no other choice but to take up the fight and defend himself.
It is strange that so few of Svejk’s countless interpreters have not seen the deadly danger in which he finds himself. Instead, they choose to laugh at his jokes and are amused by his antics as if we found ourselves in a picaresque novel or inside a circus tent. But Svejk is about to be shipped to the front in mankind’s first great war of extermination. There awaits him, with great probability – as for so many others – a certain death along with a sloppily dug mass grave. No wonder Svejk wants to escape from the huge columns of men, and if he, in his fatal predicament, reminds us of anything, it’s not a jester, but one of Kafka’s heroes.
We’ll come back to them. For they also have to defend themselves against the law’s arbitrariness or the castle’s dictatorial inaccessibility, even though the castle and court, compared to the Galician front, would be considered child’s play.
How does one avoid ending up there?
First and foremost, by buying time. This, Svejk does by showing goodwill. He carries out all orders to the letter. This certainly reveals the absurdity of obedience to command, but it makes him simultaneously unassailable. You cannot punish someone who does exactly what he’s been ordered to do, any more than to incarcerate or scold him. Bad enough you might think, but hardly at a time when people were dying like flies.
Let us not mistake Svejk’s great presence of mind: he is always right where he happens to be, nowhere else, never the victim of any pipe dreams or illusions. It has to do with his experience; no ideology or faith is exposed to such an effective gravedigger as those who frequent pubs or cafes. Instead, the Good Soldier fights his opponent on his own terms. Not by negating (Svejk is no dialectician) but only with yes and amen: like a jujitsu wrestler, he strengthens his opponent’s movement to bring him down, stretching and stretching it, extending it so the imperial and royal (K. u. K.) army’s intentions cross the boundary where they are no longer on a solid foundation of reality but, by their own power, plunge into the absurd.
As a survival strategy, it is not completely without danger, and nothing would of course be easier than to perceive him as non compos mentis, even as a fool. This also occurs continually, and Svejk is the first person to put a gloss on his officers’ reviews: yes, he is an idiot, an ‘official’ – and completely so. But ultimately, all his commanders become confused and fatigued, almost crossing the boundary of the same offence, due to a person who absconds by doing only what they ordered him to do; they have had enough of such a soldier, but they come undone. The machinery grinds to a halt and Svejk has won more time.
Yet he has managed to survive by affirming those who want to kill him.
This pedantic sense of duty allows Svejk to fight the enemy without either infernal machines or conspiracies, almost like a pacifist. At the same time, it is a very lonely struggle that knows (it must be said here) no solidarity. In war, as in peace, Josef Svejk remains alone, which is so much more remarkable because what still make the biggest impression on us are his empty words, this constant stream of everyday observations as he wipes up, all of which seem to spring from the moment.
Despite everything, he seems not to be so alone. But when we listen carefully, we hear that there are monologues, not Svejk’s contribution to what would be a conversation or dialogue. Is this verbiage idiotic? Without meaning? It is true that, in Svejk’s company, one sometimes craves silence. He is a chatterbox and nothing escapes being ground down into it. But if this verbiage is occasionally both irritating and exhausting, it is not intimidating in the same way as the silence.
The silence is dangerous. Silence is what gives rise to all the commanders’ ill-fated decisions. It was at the pub that Svejk learned to distrust it, but it is an insight that remains even when all tankards are his empty. Svejk explains he simply wants to survive. He is banging on for life. It is his only protection against the silence and the slightest break in this verbiage must be fought. Or, as he puts it: ”If you just give answers, then everything is fine.”
And, from the very beginning, his philosophy becomes consistently faithful, never is his mouth shut, never silent, not even when he is challenged at gunpoint about it. Here, of course, there are role models, even if it is hardly likely that Svejk has ever heard of them. Scheherazade manages to postpone her own execution by telling stories in the One Thousand and One Nights, ultimately marrying the person who had given her a death sentence.
It is no small accomplishment; and most certainly Svejk would have understood and felt sympathy for his literary stepsister.
But his own verbiage is not enough to fascinate and enthral. Yes – it is an endless verbiage against the silence and to gain time. But what is it really about? And I am not talking about some higher philosophical meaning in this ungraded rubble of life’s confetti and everyday knick-knacks.
Has this chatter any meaning whatsoever, other than as noise and interference?
I would argue that this is the case: it is about Svejk’s attempt to save himself. The Good Soldier looks at his own verbiage for what could help him, an experience or knowledge that will make it possible to escape the front. In this sole purpose, he mobilises (sic) his memory to bring out everything that could be used, not to entertain those who are (maybe) listening, and not as a harmless pastime for those who cannot believe that Svejk’s life concerns him and perhaps who do not even realise that their own is in danger.
This heroic survival project is what this book is all about and it causes it to overflow its banks. It can be read as one great tribute to the memory, to the need to know where you come from and who you are as a condition of not being like slaughtered cattle. For those who do not know are like an empty vessel or a blank sheet of paper, someone who mechanically becomes only what circumstances happen to pour into the vessel or write on the sheet: and such a person is soon lost.
Instead, Svejk takes stock of all his stores of memories to recall what he or anyone else he knows has already been through – an experience or some knowledge that will save him. In his past, he’s looking for what will make it possible to master the future, and almost everything he finds there is what he picked up at the pub or café, which he now dispenses as compressed natural wisdom, i.e., in the form of an anecdote.
The anecdote – the so-called ‘small man’s truth’ – becomes his strategy. It will help him to level and firm ground. The anecdote’s job is to keep him alive. Or, more correctly, hopefully it will contain something that can. When he repeatedly recounts what he has heard or been involved in in civilian life, it is because out of such experiences can come something that will give him the opportunity to return to it; because anything must be better than going to the front.
In his own anecdotes, Svejk looks, therefore, for good advice for his own benefit. He knows that a good anecdote holds much such advice, that it constantly gives practical suggestions on how difficult predicaments can be overcome, how to cut the tail of a dog and repaint it so that it can then be sold (one could hardly have believed this in advance), how to drink from toxic tinctures without dying, how to avoid falling into a latrine in the dark, and so on.
Surely there must also be something about how to survive a war.
And Svejk tries to remember; he is feverishly busy, scanning what he finds in his memory, turning it inside out and then spreading it out in his monologues, as he tries to crack a code that will contain the formula for his rescue.
Everything he can remember about his life is now worthwhile to examine, with no other intention than that he himself can take control of it. It is about a desperate attempt when faced by mortal danger to lay claim to as much biography and existence as possible. And nothing is forgotten; even the crudest detail can be shown to contain what he needs.
For those who are (perhaps) listening, his anecdotes are just little rhetorical bouillon cubes that dissolve in their rarely completely sober minds. But that does not matter. What is told is, of course, intended for Svejk himself, not for them, and will prevent him from being sent to where he does not want to go. And time is short; he is already on the way. For the Good Soldier’s march to the front is also a kind of odyssey, a road movie or modern Anabasis, though Svejk strives in the opposite direction to the marching battalions. He’s not on the way home, and therefore doesn’t want Odysseus to arrive. Instead, he wants to make the trip as long as possible because he fears that at the end of the road of the mass graves, there is one waiting for him.
And yet he is not there.
And how is it going for Svejk’s acquaintances from Prague? For Josef K and K? Really bad. It turns out that K was never let in to the castle and that Josef K got a knife in the heart that was twisted twice. He died like a dog. Only the shame survived him, writes Kafka.
The shame of what? Not having defended himself.
It is as if Kafka’s heroes are unable to defend themselves. Nor can they benefit from the experience of others. In their struggle against bureaucracy’s apparatus of incalculable power, they nevertheless get a lot of good advice: well intentioned, often insightful, given by people familiar with the court or the castle. It should be helpful. Josef K and K ask questions and receive answers, but do not seem to heed them. Rather, they behave like they had not heard anything. Or even worse: as if they have immediately forgot what they have heard. They even fall asleep when someone says something important to them. Everything then begins all over again, except they have moved.
Are they autistics? Rather than artificial people. While Svejk falls back on who he is and what he has experienced, they cannot even produce an artificial biography. All the experience and good advice is wasted on them because they cannot make anything of it. They cannot ‘read’ their own predicament, are inaccessible to any form of feedback. They cannot, unlike Svejk, relate any information to their own person. Sad facts.
We begin to suspect that they cannot relate to the world because they themselves are not in it. Neither they nor we really know who they are. Unlike Svejk, they never say anything because they have nothing to say. They are without a past and seem to lack the ability to remember. But such a person cannot be helped, let alone help himself. Josef K and K seem doomed to fail and perish.
Now it is time to write about their family history.
If they are related to someone, it is not to Svejk, but to Golem. Golem is an artificial man that Rabbi Löw, in old Prague, created out of the four elements – a ”complete” man, without any biography or memories. All Golem’s parts are indeed human, to his visage the Rabbi gave human traits; but speech ails his creation. Mute, and with his head resting in his rough hands, Golem sits by the fireplace in Rabbi Löw’s house, waiting for new assignments. So he is doomed to live out his ‘existence’, totally dependent on someone else, a passive instrument in strange hands. However, the Rabbi Löw was a godly man who took good care of his homunculus.
But what if such a creature is left to its own devices?
Kafka shows us what happens then. At the same time, he gives us a vision of the modern person: alone, uprooted from his context, helpless before the bureaucratic machinery that wants to destroy him.
How different Svejk is as his own life’s bookkeeper! And he is successful. Sheherazade’s thousand and one nights is certainly an unmatched record, but it turns out that Joseph Svejk is not that much worse: when the book about the brave soldier runs over a thousand pages (in the Czech original edition) it suddenly stops, because Jaroslav Hašek had drunk himself to death and the pen had fallen from his hand, and Svejk had not even reached the front. He is in the vicinity of Przemysl, which is approximately one hundred and fifty kilometres away from it.
If this should not be called an outstanding success, I do not know what the word means.
Svejk succeeds where both Josef K and K failed.
Not too shabby for someone dealing in stolen dogs.
For decades, I have quarrelled with Czech friends about Joseph Svejk, often at the pub (though never in the tourist trap, The Golden Cup). Many of them do not really want to acknowledge him, as he insults them morally or in their Czech patriotism.
As a symbol of the nation, nobody wants to see him. Pavel Kohout believes that he is an opportunist who only represents the Czech lumpenproletariat of his time; the only thing we agree on is that Bertolt Brecht was an even bigger fool than Svejk when he, in one of his pieces, sends the Good Soldier to the Second World War.
A devastating, unforgivable anachronism: to act as Svejk did and still survive was perhaps possible under Emperor Franz Josef, but would, under Hitler, be a certain death sentence.
And Václav Havel? He did not even want to admit that Svejk had human qualities, and did not see him as a person of flesh and blood, but as something very artificial, one of many in Prague’s classical tradition of homunculi.
Ludvík Vaculik goes even further. For him, Svejk is a nihilist. In a text as short as it is famous, he devotes himself to what is for me a similar literary betrayal when he lets Svejk, with his inscrutable countenance, appear as one of the many interrogators by whom the dissident Vaculik was confronted before real socialism collapsed in Prague. By which I mean a grotesque misunderstanding. Or as if Vaculik had not read the book about Svejk, at least not the first chapter where he with great cunning – and you sense his restrained desperation – emerges from the police spy Brettschneider’s chlorine.
For many years now, I have demanded redress for Josef Svejk. In vain. How is it possible that yesterday’s dissidents, despite the uniform, do not recognise him as one of them? At times it makes me upset. And you all also had a bar or cafe as your only scene! Just like Svejk, you spent most of your time there, and it is beyond me how, for years, could let him sit at the next table without inviting him over.
In a way, you learned a lot from Svejk. Your methods were civilian. You did not resort to violence to defend yourself. Like Svejk, you never harmed a fly. Charter 77 was really your version of his way to defend himself against power without openly battling with it: demanding that the powers-that-be should, to the letter, stick to their own laws and regulations, also clamouring for a literal reading of the fine print, instead of treating the law as formality and as window-dressing.
Svejk immediately comprehended such a juristic jujitsu.
And you should even have understood Svejk’s fear: for good reason, you were very afraid, afraid of being incarcerated, afraid of the incessant interrogation and harassment, afraid to end up as a window cleaner or as a stoker in some boiler room. Like Svejk, you risked being removed from the rolls, becoming a non-person, to become a number without the hope of ever being able to become a citizen. Just like him, you were simply afraid to cease to exist.
And, just like you, Svejk held the truth as sacrosanct. How could you forget this? He does not lie; not even chaplain Katz could have convicted him of lying. His anecdotes are perhaps pointed or grotesque, sometimes with questionable morals, but they never lie. How could he be a ”nihilist” a ”liar” or even ”world literature’s most wonderful anarcho-fatalist” (Jacob Strobel y Serra)? None of this, I think, applies to Joseph Svejk. What he is trying to avoid is precisely his fate, and in this effort there is nothing romantic or anarchic, but an obstinate and systematic order.
Instead, Svejk adheres strictly to the truth, if not always through conviction, then at least through self-preservation. It must be hard to find a better example of what Havel calls ”living in truth”; even when facing court-martial, he speaks the truth, even though that truth can leave him one head shorter. This speaks also about courage. Let’s admit it: with his passion for truth, he stands in the same large Bohemian tradition that you Chartists brought forward from Jan Palach, Jan Hus or Tomáš Masaryk, whose motto as president was ”the truth wins”.
Now, the whole story. One hundred years have passed since the First World War, and Charter 77 is forgotten just as real socialism is forgotten. But Joseph Svejk is still waiting for his rehabilitation. Maybe a statue? Though surely the Good Soldier would then immediately begin a long explanation about a statue’s short life and what pigeons tend to use them for, all in order to save himself from such a fate in marble or bronze.
Though, we could of course invite him for a few beers. Not among the tourists at The Golden Cup, but somewhere near the castle in Prague, so as to kill two birds with one stone and remind all worldly power of its allotted time and mortality.
Journalist och författare.