Literature / The Good Soldier Švejk
The Good Soldier Švejk
is an unfinished satirical anti-war
novel by the Czech author and political activist Jaroslav Hašek. Originally named Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové válkynote
, tells us about the adventures of the titular soldier in World War I
. Such dry description, however, couldn't even try to approach the irreverent hilarity
of the book, that from its very first lines sets to lampoon, satirize and hang to dry just about everything Hašek finds objectable in the Two-Headed Monarchy and its military
. Unfortunately, due to Author Existence Failure
(Hašek died in 1923 from tuberculosis) the novel got only about half-finished, with Hašek completing just three parts out of intended six. The publisher insisted
on the rest being completed by his friend Karel Vanek
, though it ended up not as good and is rarely republished today, unike the original portion of the novel, which is the most translated book in the whole of Czech literature.
The novel revolves around the titular soldier, a born and bred Pražák
Josef Švejk, about whom even the author cannot seem to decide
, whether he is out to subvert all the idiocy around him through Obfuscating Stupidity
, his blue-collar wits and common sense, and dumb insolence
; or he's indeed just as stupid as almost everyone around him seems to think. You see, the novel being set in a vast, archaic and crumbling
Hapsburg Empire, where the Czechs like him (and the author) were considered Second Class Citizens at best, and which, like so many crumbling empires before, tried to prop itself by an extensive and intricate bureaucratic scaffolding
, this produced a lot of glaring, visible idiocy around
for everyone to see, and a lot of cynical, snarky people
just trying to get by through it. Now, take everything said above, and try to put it into a military setting
— and you'll see why Joseph Heller once said that had he read the novel before, he'd never write Catch-22
This book provide examples of the following tropes:
- The Alcoholic: From the amounts of booze consumed, most of the characters. Note that those amounts are quite realistic, as Czechs are among the greatest drinkers of the whole of Europe. Moreover, the author himself was a hopeless drunkard, so he wrote from experience. The most prominent example is probably Chaplain Katz, who is hardly ever seen completely sober.
- Almighty Janitor: Quartermaster Sergeant Vaněk is essentially this as he runs the company administration. For example, Lieutenant Lukáš can not persuade him to find him another batman, despite Baloun often eating his rations, because Vaněk opines that Baloun is so incompetent as a soldier that in any other position he would make more harm and Lukáš just has to deal with him. As a solace, though, he puts Baloun on double portions, so that he, at least, would stop eating Lukáš' meals every time.
- Armchair Military:
- Armed Farces: Nothing escapes the author's satire.
- Artistic License – Biology:
- Played for Laughs, Jurajda says "According to Darwin's theory, humans descended from carps".
- Also played for laughs when one-year volunteer Marek reminiscences about his stint as the editor of magazine called The Animal World - when he ran out of his useful tips on farm animals and bee-keeping (which caused havoc in the areas where his tips were adhered to), he resorted to literally inventing something fresh - new animals with outrageously pseudoscientific names, improbable habitats and physiology. He also got involved in lengthy polemics with the editor of another journal, after Marek published photo of a jay sitting on a walnut tree, therefore rechristening it "nutcracker", which he later supported with vulgarities and false quotations from Alfred Brehm, claiming e.g. that jays belong in the family ''Crocodilia''.
- Artistic Licence History: Literally. In-Universe example. One-year volunteer Marek, when appointed battalion historian, decided it's more important what is written about the heroic deeds of the battalion than any actual heroic acts. And more fun too, proceeding to imagine future victorious engagements of the battalion and curious incidents in which his companions were going to perish.
"The main thing for a conscientious historian like me is first to draw up a plan of our victories."
- Artistic License – Physics: In-Universe and lampshaded. At one point in Budapest, Švejk sees a propaganda poster depicting an Austrian soldier pinning his Russian nemesis to a brick wall with his bayonet. He promptly points out to Lt. Dub that the Austrian guy is about to break his bayonet and is very very likely to get in trouble for it.
- As the Good Book Says...:
- Švejk once knew a pub-keeper who had a Bible quotation for any occasion and when he flogged brawlers with a knout always used to say: "He that spareth his rod hateth his son, but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes - I'll teach you to fight in my pub!"
- Also his fellow soldier, one-year volunteer Marek (otherwise completely non-religious), is revealed to be fond of (mis)quoting the Scripture when playing cards, e.g.:
When he bought a knave he called out: "Lord, let me have this knave this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it; that he bear me fruit."
- Author Avatar: Hašek didn't even try to hide the book's autobiographical roots and try to mask his avatar. Every story told about the "fat volunteer" Marek, the bumbling journalist and Švejk's inseparable alter ego, is based on some anecdote from Hašek's own life. It is Hašek who went AWOL with a fake infirmary log, it is him who edited an agricultural almanac — trying to imitate Mark Twain's story as close to life as possible, it is Hašek who traded in stolen dogs (albeit he attributed it to Švejk in the novel)…
- Bavarian Fire Drill: volunteer Marek recounts his succesfull unauthorized leaves from a military hospital, for which he acquired a big, officially looking book, which he labeled "Krankenbuch des 91. regt" in large letters and carefully filled with fake patients' names and their medical history and then used instead of a pass during his regular all-night visits to pubs.
- Big Eater: Oberleutnant Lukáš's second batman, Baloun, in civilian life a miller from Český Krumlov, who is such a glutton that he constantly eats his officer's meals before being able to deliver them to him. Only after he's put on double portions does he get satisfied somewhat.
- Black Humour: Author's default response to various absurdities of the war and Austrian military and bureaucracy.
- The Book Cipher: Used at one point when the officers are briefed on the newest cipher method, which apparently is a variant of the book cipher based upon the pages 160 and 161 of a German novel "Die Sünden der Väter". However, the book used is a novel in two volumes and Švejk, when ordered to deliver them to the battalion officers, was not informed that it was the second part which was needed and delivered the first tomes only, keeping the second volumes in storage, believing that 'they gentlemen officers would surely like to read the novel in the proper order, as anyone else, and after they had read the first part they'd be issued with the second part'. Hilarity ensues during the briefing, when only officer-cadet Biegler was brave enough to point out that the example given does not make any sense, while other officers just kept calm and quietly assumed that their regimental colonel finally went completely bananas and would be soon promoted to the war ministry.
In your example, the first word of the deciphered message is "Auf"note but ours had come out "Heu"note !
- Bothering by the Book: How Švejk's behaviour often comes out. The jury is still out whether it's his intention.
- Bring My Brown Pants: A soldier mentions that crapping your pants is very common in battles:
Not long ago one of the chaps who was wounded told us in Budejovice that when they were advancing he shitted three times in succession: first when they were climbing up from cover to the space before the barbed-wire entanglement; a second time when they started cutting the wire, and a third time when the Russians rushed at them with their bayonets and shouted "Hurrah.' Then they began to run back to the trenches and in their unit there wasn't a single man who hadn't shitted.
- Call a Smeerp a "Rabbit": Despite the quite peculiar structure of the Empire's military, a number of unusual concepts were given familiar names, confusing an unprepared reader. Like "volunteer" note meaning a voluntary reserve-officer trainee, and "cadet" being a lowest officer rank note , instead of officer trainee.
- Can't Get In Trouble For Nuthin': A military doctor, Friedrich Welfer, used to receive a yearly allowance until he got his doctoral degree, from relatives who upon this condition inherited a fortune from a wealthy uncle. Since this allowance was bigger than his payment as a doctor would have been, he purposely prolonged his studies as long as possible. However, when the war broke out, he had to take a "military exam", and received his doctorate despite writing "Lecken Sie mich am Arsch!" (meaning "Kiss my ass") to every question.
- Captain Obvious: General von Zillergut suffers from "a mania for explanations", feeling the need to explain even the simplest of concepts.
- Child by Rape: Discussed Trope, as volunteer Marek jokingly speculates that war rape is some kind of human allogamy.
- Composite Character: Švejk himself, who is a complex mix of the eponymous soldier from the 11th company, parts of Hašek's own experience (like his dog business), and one more of his innumerable friends, real Lieutenant Lukas' batman, František Strašlipka, from whom Švejk gets his storyteller's tendencies.
- Dirty Old Monk: Chaplain Katz is a priest, who cares little for his duties for Church, instead focusing on drinking, gambling and chasing skirts. He spent the night before his consecration in a brothel.
- Doorstopper: And it's not even finished. (The 2005 Penguin Classics edition is 784 pages long).
- Draft Dodging:
- A variety of men try to avoid conscription by pretending to be ill, resorting to injecting gasoline into their legs and other outlandish methods (all played for comedy). The army has a special "hospital" for malingerers, where they put them on a strict diet, and, among other things, wrap them in wet sheets - even the ones who really have tuberculosis.
- Subverted by Švejk, who volunteers, despite suffering from rheumatism so bad that he can't even walk, and he's wheeled to the recruitment office by his charwoman.
- Later into the book, one-year volunteer Mareknote is introduced, who describes his failed attempts to catch rheumatism - he slept in gutters in rain and bathed in an icy river - which only hardened him to cold, so he felt perfectly fit after spending whole night sleeping on snow. He also tried to catch a venereal disease, visiting a brothel daily, but he remained immune. Finally he met a disabled soldier who injected him with something which made him suffer a "real rheumatism" so he can hardly move.
"That precious soul had not deceived me. And so finally I had my muscular rheumatism."
- Dressing as the Enemy: Švejk, when separated from a billeting party, came upon a Russian uniform, discarded by an escaped POW, and put it on, to 'test whether it would suit him and would be comfortable to wear'. Mistaken for a runaway Russian he's been arrested and when he revealed his nationality, sentenced to death by General Fink as a defector. His candid admission that he did put on the Russian uniform out of his own free will didn't help him either. Of course he got better, when it's realized there was no way to defect to the Russian Army hundred miles behind the frontline.
- Drill Sergeant Nasty:
- The Neidermeyer Fänhrich Dauerling,note who once read the book Drill or Educationnote where he learnt that terror towards soldiers was essential for successful training; Feldwebel Sondernummer, corporals Althof and Müller and other examples are talked about. Most of them apply the Authority Equals Asskicking approach towards recruits.
- Played with the protagonist, who on one occasion subjected Baloun to a punishment drill session, after he caught him stealing his food. Švejk invokes many a trope of a typical Austro-Hungarian drill instructor and - with Baloun being rather inept soldier - Hilarity Ensued - which came as unsettling enough even for Hauptmann Ságner to in turn punish Švejk with a rifle drill session under Feldwebel Nasáklo.
- Subverted with Feldwebel Nasáklo - advertised as the meanest tyrant in the regiment - when he's ordered to give an hour of punishment drill to Švejk, he soon suffers a mysterious collapse - as Švejk was still pleasantly chatting with him during the rifle drill session. It is implied that Švejk drove him nuts with his incessant anecdotes: one of the peculiar features of his storytelling is a frequently lampshaded inability of the listener to decide whether they are a case of a simple idiocy, or the carefully crafted dumb insolence.
- Eat the Evidence: When the army is stationed in Bruck an der Leitha, Oberleutnant Lukáš sees a pretty married woman, Mrs. Kákonyi in the theater, and orders Švejk to deliver a love letter to her. Švejk as usual, screws things up and ends up in a street fight. Colonel Schröder tells Lukáš what happened afterwards:
When they took that man to the guard-house after the brawl they found on him the letter you had sent to Mrs Kákonyi. Your Svejk alleged under cross-examination that it was not your letter, but that he had written it himself. However, when it was shown to him and he was asked to copy it to compare the handwriting with his own, he ate it up.
- Everyone Has Standards: Švejk's friend, sapper Vodička has a savage sense of justice. He hates Hungarians, attacks them even without provocation, and he thinks nothing of hitting women. However, he also mentions that when he was in Serbia, the soldiers were offered cigarettes for hanging comitadji (supposedly partisans, but actually just civilians, including women and children). When his company found out that one of their members is doing that, they murdered him one night and threw his cigarettes and his body away into the river Drina.
- Fat Idiot: Svejk and Marek subvert this due to Obfuscating Stupidity, while Baloun plays this straight.
- A Father to His Men: Lieutenant Lukáš. Or so we've been told. He takes only one exception - he invariably hates his batmen. Until Švejk's antics drove him rather desperate.
- Food Porn:
- Starving malingerers in Dr. Grünstein's hospital are descibed as discussing various delicacies with fervor and dedication of gourmets or students of cordon bleu cuisine school.
- This scene repeats closely when arrested soldiers in the guardhouse remember one of their fellow inmates, a rich peasant amply supplied by his relatives, who never shared anything with them — for which they've once stolen all his provisions just to teach him a lesson.
- Chaplain Lacina who drunkenly stumbled into a prisoner's railcar with Švejk and Marek - after he sobered up - started waxing lyrical on importance of good cuisine, with examples of foods he ate, details on his favourite sauce preparation, and alleged references to food in the biblical context.
- Most of Baloun's narrations describes what and how much he ate before the war. Or what he's going to eat after the war's end. Note that as Baloun in civil life was a rich farmer — a miller — most of his recollections were of an internationally famous Southern Bohemian country cuisine, a Food Porn indeed.
- This is another autobiographical element, as Hašek's maternal family were the Old Retainers to the princes of Schwarzenberg, the largest landowners in the Czech lands, and he often fondly remembered the times spent at his grandfather's farm in Southern Bohemia.
- Gentle Giant: Baloun, who is kind, simple and, frankly speaking, not very bright.
- Gratuitous German: Justified, as German was the primary language of the Austro-Hungarian military. Some of the military terminology hadn't even existed in Czech prior to 1918 and enlisted personnel often used phonetically adapted German words, as they do in the book. This tends to get Lost in Translation or substantially toned down, at the very least.
- Hanging Judge: General Fink von Finkenstein, who works as a judge under martial law. His favorite pastime is sentencing people to death; he makes the procedure so quick that he doesn't even say the required "In the name of His Majesty you are condemned to death by hanging" just "I condemn you".
- Honest John's Dealership: Prior to the outbreak of war Švejk was small-time dealer in dogs. His methods are described basically as "he falsified dog pedigrees for living" - and he's quite fond of recalling them.
- Hypercompetent Sidekick: Švejk to Chaplain Katz, a bumbling alcoholic military priest who later loses his services to Lukáš in a game of cards.
- Informed Judaism: Back when Otto Katz hasn't been baptized yet, he wasn't a very observant Jew to say the least. He drank and whored away his family business, and joined the army to escape his creditors, which required conversion to Catholicism along the way, which he did with nary a second thought. He actually doesn't believe in God anyway, and has basically took his wows more or less for the lulz, after a drunken bender with the other cavalry officers.
- Interservice Rivalry:
- In one episode Švejk narrates how during his previous peacetime service a soldier of the regiment 'succeeded in stabbing a dragoon in a Bar Brawl over some girl', and special roll-call was ordered, to be listent to a special regimental order, that stabbing dragoons is forbidden, as they are soldiers too and Kriegskameraden.
- Švejk's longtime friend, sapper Antonín Vodička, was physically unable to see a Honvédnote uniform without thoroughly dismantling its contents, though in his case it was largely due to good old-fashioned racism, as he couldn't stand any Hungarians, not just soldiers.
- Colonel Schröder is Not So Different and after Vodička with Švejk started a huge fight with Hungarians in streets of Királyhida/Bruck an der Leitha, which led to massive backlash in Hungarian press, quite frankly states to Lieutenant Lukáš that in his opinion the real problem is "constant Hungarian agitation against Austrian regiments", and that all people from the Austrian part of the monarchy, regardless of their ethnicity, are just better than Hungarians anyway. His intervention later saved them from the Court Martial.
"I tell you that a Czech soldier is much more to my taste than any pack of Hungarian bastards."
- In Ensign Dauerling's story there is a mention that one of the worst transgressions of an infantry soldier in the peacetime is getting caught by an artillery or Landwehr's patrol while AWOL.
- When Marek was arrested for boxing the ears of an artillery Lieutenant (whom he mistook for his friend in darkness), the only mitigating circumstance colonel Schröder can find is:
"A really classic example - classical philosopher who in a state of intoxication knocks officers' caps off their heads at night. My God! How lucky that it was only an artillery officer!"
- Everyone despises the reserve officers. Lieutenant Dub is a prime example, though in his case it was made worse by the fact that Dub himself is a petty, vindictive idiot with delusions of grandeur. Cadet Biegler, another reserve officer, while often condescendingly dismissed as an Ensign Newbie that he was, is generally treated much more sympathetically.
- When the battalion aproaches the front, there are mentioned rather strained relations with the German Armynote too - with a bit of We ARE Struggling Together.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Fans still cannot decide whether Švejk is this or Jerk with the Heart of a Jerk. A lot of his pranks are decidedly nasty, and as he gets any hint of authority, he tends to abuse it to the hilt.
- Kicked Upstairs: A common way of dealing with the officers who are too out of their gourd even by the pretty loose standards of the Two-Headed Monarchy, but with too much connections to be kicked out.
- Liquid Courage: Invoked by Quartermaster Vaněk who regards rum and wine as the essential element for morale on the front.
- Loads and Loads of Characters: Being a satirical Slice of Life novel about Armed Farces, it is only natural. As it often happens in such cases, Hašek tends to recycle the names somewhat.
- Lost Him in a Card Game: Chaplain Katz loses Švejk to Lukáš in a game of cards.
- Meaningful Name: Lieutenant Dub, whose name means "oak" and is a common slur for an idiot in all Slavic languages.
- Modern Major General: General von Zillergut, "General of Latrines", General von Finkelstein… well, most of the Austrian top officers are dumbnuts who got their posts entirely through their familiy connections.
- The Neidermeyer: Lieutenant Dub, Ensign Dauerling, General von Finkelstein...
- Obfuscating Stupidity: The common agreement about Švejk this day, though the author himself was much more ambiguous, and his notes and letters don't support the idea that he intended Švejk to be a subversive character. On the other hand, in his afterword to the first volume, Hašek wrote that "hearing people who use phrase 'Dumb as Švejk' probably means I have not quite achieved my goal with this book".
- The Oldest Profession: Characters visit or mention brothels and prostitutes more then once.
- One Steve Limit: Averted, names popular in the Real Life at the time (such as Antonín — AKA Tonouš, AKA Tonda — a common Czech name) are frequent in the novel as well. There are at least two Antoníns that spring up to mind, sapper Vodička and cook Jurajda.
- O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Lampshaded by Švejk in an incident when drunk Lt. Dub returns from a brothelnote and is uncharacteristically kind and courteous to his batman, Kunert, whom he usually treats like dirt. Švejk then tells the guy to cherish the memory, as it's not frequent for an officer to be courteous to an enlisted and to call him "Mister".
- Our Mermaids Are Different: Svejk tells a story of a brothel which boasted about having a mermaid as one of their workers... who was actually an old fat whore with legs covered by green fabric and herring's tail stuffed in the ass.
- Patriotic Fervor: Quite popular among dumbernote and/or more naivenote characters, while everyone who is a bit smarter (and therefore more cynical) laughs at the patriotic hysteria.
- Politically Incorrect Hero\Politically Incorrect Villain: Nearly everyone in this novel is bigoted against some nation or social group. Except for Svejk - he seems to despise everyone equally.
- Really Gets Around:
- Oberleutnant Lukáš, Švejk and Marek's company commander, was quite the womanizer before being sent to the front.
- It is implied that Švejk at least partially shared his boss' attitude, and there are mentions of the ladies whose hearts were broken by Lukáš finding comfort in Švejk's rugged working-class hands.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Lukáš is an incessant womanizer, but he's a competent, honorable officer, which is a rarity in this book. This is a reflection of Hašek's own experience, as he struck a good note with his own company commander and Lukáš's prototype, Rudolf Lukas, who also has had a high opinion of him. Their battallion commander, captain Sagner, is one as well, though he's more ambiguous, being a reputed Glory Hound and having We Have Reserves tendencies.
- Reassigned to Antarctica:
- Lukáš and Švejk are posted to the 91st regiment and then sent to the front due to several Švejk's screw-ups - first with the dog stolen from Colonel Kraus as Švejk's gift for Lukáš and then after the street fight Švejk and Vodička started while delivering a love letter from Lukáš to Mrs. Kákonyi.
- Jurajda, the learned cook, is assigned to the 11th march company by Colonel Schröder after he repeatedly miscalculated number of rations for the officers' dinner (while drunk) and Schröder was thus deprived of his favourite food.
- Battalion medical officer Dr. Welfer was posted to the front-line unit after he was found to be 'too lenient' to soldiers in rear-area military hospitals.
- Refuge in Audacity: Just about any moment, though the story how Švejk got himself and Lukáš sent to the front note and his "Anabasis" through Southern Bohemia take the cake.
- Reminiscing About Your Victims: In a letter to his family, General Finkelstein decribes in great details the executions he arranged (though in those cases, the victims managed to escape by sheer luck).
- Roman ŕ Clef: Most of the characters are based on the real people Hašek knew during his service and his life as a Prague journalist and bohemian.
- The Scrounger: Vanek the Quartermaster. A former chemist and an Old Soldier, he knows his stuff.
- Sergeant Rock: Feldwebel (Sergeant Major) Vanek, 11th company's Quartermaster. Though cynical and self-serving, he's nevertheless competent, reliable, and as much of The Scrounger as possible.
- Small Name, Big Ego: Lieutenant Dub, whose Catch-Phrase is "You don't know me, but you'll know me!" Cadet Biegler also qualifies, but he is more of a Ensign Newbie with Miles Gloriosus aspirations. (When the two are confronted at the end of the novel, Biegler comes out as more sympathetic).
- Soldiers at the Rear:
- Company Quartermaster-Sergeant Vaněk, due to both his occupation (i.e. administration and logistics specialist) and personal preferences. He survived several disastrous campaigns when most of the unit was otherwise lost, by being "accidentally in the rear", supervising delivery of the rum rations. This is lampshaded by Lieutenant Lukáš.
- Most of the other characters are in the rear-echelon, with Švejk being batman to Katz and Lukáš, and then company's orderly.
- And of course, due to the Author Existence Failure, Švejk and his battalion actually never reached the frontline.
- The Storyteller: Švejk has an endless collection of anecdotes, and he tells them at every opportunity. Over the course of the book, he adds some stories about Chaplain Katz and Oberleutnant Lukáš to his collection.
- Talks Like a Simile: The protagonist's stories, to the point it's not entirely clear if he's playing the Obfuscating Stupidity card or just ... just means it.
- Toilet Humor: The novel has loads of jokes involving feces, but they are sill hilarious.
- Unfriendly Fire: According to Svejk's friend, sapper Vodička, fragging is common in the Austro-Hungarian army. He remembers murdering one of their own company soldiers who volunteered to execute Serbian civilians. There are also other mentions of the incompetent Glory Hound officers wasted by their own troops.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Only not so loosely in most cases. Most of the events and people in the book were indeed based on the real events and people, though often embellished and reinterpreted by the author.
- We Have Reserves: The general attitude about the war in Viennese high circles.
- What an Idiot: Invoked In-Universe just as frequently as said by the reader about half of the whole officer corps depicted in the book. The other half are self-serving cynical bastards — and aren't shy to note the fact about the former.
- World of Snark