Literature: The Good Soldier Svejk

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  it is, naturally, tells us about the adventures of a titular soldier in a World War One. 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 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 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.
  • Armchair Military: A lot of officers in the book, who generally have zilch of real combat experience, though cadet Biegler, an Ensign Newbie with delusions of grandeur and Lieutenant Dub, a former teacher and a monumental cretin, jump forth the first.
    • Cadet Biegler even keeps a notebook trying to analyze historical battles — though his works better resemble The Beautiful Game strategies rather than military analyses.
    • Note that "cadet" in the Austro-Hungarian military didn't mean a Military Academy student, but rather a one-year volunteernote  who passed his officer exam, but wasn't commissioned as an Ensign yet.
  • Armed Farces: Nothing escapes the author's satire.
  • 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've traded in stolen dogs (albeit he attributed it to Švejk in the novel)…
  • Author Existence Failure: His unhealthy bohemian lifestyle, the tribulations of war, and the personal problems since his return to Czechoslovakia did little to improve the author's health. Hašek contracted typhoid and tuberculosis in Russia, but while he got the first mostly healed up, once he returned home and got the cold shoulder from most of his former colleagues, his TB worsened, and though his situation later improved, his health did not, and he died January 3rd, 1923, having completed less than half of the planned novel.
  • Big Eater: Oberlieutenant Lukáš's second batman, Baloun, in civilian life a miller from Český Krumlov, who is such a glutton that he constantly eats his officers meals before being able to deliver them to him. Only after he's put on double portions he gets satisfied somewhat.
  • 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 !
  • 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 a 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. 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 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 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."
  • Eat the Evidence: When the army is stationed in Bruck an der Leitha, Oberlieutenant 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.
  • Gentle Giant: Baloun, who is kind, simple and, frankly speaking, not very bright.
  • 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".
  • Hypercompetent Sidekick: Švejk to Chaplain Katz, a bumbling alcoholic military priest who later loses his services to Lukáš in a game of cards.
  • Interservice Rivalry: Švejk's logtime 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 the good oldfashioned racism, as he couldn't stand any Hungarians, not just soldiers.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The Neidermeyer: Lieutenant Dub, Ensign Dauerling, General von Finkelstein...
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Really Gets Around: Oberlieutenant Lukáš, Švejk and Marek's company commander, was quite the womanizer before being sent to the front.
  • 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.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Just about any moment, though the story how Švejk got himself and Lukáš sent to front note  and his "Anabasis" through Southern Bohemia take the cake.
  • 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).
  • The Sound of Martial Music: The novel thoroughly lampoons every side of the Austro-Hungarian military.
  • The Storyteller: Švejk has an endless collection of anecdotes, and he tells them at every opportunity.
  • Unfriendly Fire: According to Svejk's friend, sapper Vodička, fragging is common in the Austro-Hungarian army.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Only not so loosely in most cases. Most of 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.
  • Write What You Know: The book in it all entirety is closely based on Hašek's experiences as a conscripted Czech soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army in the Great War, and had he lived to complete it, it would've undoubtedly include his experiences during the Russian Civil War.