Some writers so capture the soul and spirit of a people that they are identified with them forever after. In England, it was Charles Dickens, in the United States, it was Mark Twain. For the Slavic nations, and to some extent for all Central Europeans, it is the Czech writer, Jaroslav Hašek.
Hašek’s most important work was centered around a Czech soldier’s experiences in World War One. It’s actual title is The Fateful Adventures of The Good Soldier Švejk during the World War, but it is known by tens of millions of Central Europeans as simply, The Good Soldier Švejk. This monumental, humorous work is acknowledged as "...one of the greatest masterpieces of satirical writing" by no less a standard and exalted reference than the Encyclopedia Britannica.
This new translation and rendition of The Good Soldier Švejk is our attempt to make this Central European masterwork accessible to the modern reader of English. There have been two other attempts and both are, in our opinion, failures in both practice and spirit. The only attempt at a complete English translation has often been criticized, by those who have read the novel in another language, as a clumsy rendition that left The Good Soldier Švejk reading like a hackneyed novel about the British army in the 19th century. We consider this both an injustice to Jaroslav Hašek and a tragedy for those denied the insight and enjoyment of a hilarious and rollicking modern classic.
The book’s central character is a quintessential, working-class citizen-soldier, often abused by the fates and the forces of the Austrian empire. In both civilian and military life, Švejk lives by his wits. His chief ploy is to appear witless to those in authority. In fact, he is fond of pointing out that he has been certified to be an imbecile by an official military medical commission. Consequently, he reasons, he cannot be held responsible for his sometimes questionable actions because he’s a certified nitwit!
Yet, Švejk is not a coward, nor is he indolent. He is drafted back into the army as cannon fodder to die for an Emperor he despises. His method of subverting the Austrian Empire is to carry out his orders to an absurd conclusion. His is an inspired resistance. He holds the foreign authorities, and their Czech fellow travelers, accountable for their ridiculous platitudes and pseudo-patriotic blather.
The Good Soldier Švejk is as entertaining as any book of the 20th century. And, though it is set in World War One and written shortly thereafter, most readers will find it thoroughly modern. There is good reason for that. Jaroslav Hašek was more than avant garde. He was an iconoclastic revolutionary, both in his life and as an artist. The First World War liberated the Czech Lands and Jaroslav Hašek simultaneously. For the first time, he was free to write and create without censorship or fear of imperial reprisal.
Like many great artists, Jaroslav Hašek was a happy confluence of genius, talent, time and place. His talent and genius are widely acknowledged by scholars worldwide. They point to his ground-breaking contribution in transforming and modernizing the novel and making it relevant for our time. And, in the non-English-speaking world, his work has long been loved by legions of regular folks. At any rate, you will soon be able to judge his talent and genius for yourself.
One of his biographers, Emmanuel Frynta, writes:
"He was one of that generation which fully fought with the problems of the modern world. He was one of the artists at the start of the century who so splendidly cast light on the question of a live, valid, meaningful art worthy of the time. He was a curious, not easily understood person, too mobile and opaque for portrayal. As a creator, (he was) seemingly careless, natural, (and) spontaneous, ... but, in reality (he was) sharply discerning and refined in his specific type of non-literariness ... (he) was working farsightedly in the field of language and style, with something that was to become the shape of (the) speech of the century."
And just what is it we have been denied? A host of literary critics acknowledge that Jaroslav Hašek was one of the earliest writers of what we have come to know as modern literature. He experimented with verbal collage, Dadaism and the surreal. Hašek was writing modern fiction before exalted post-World-War-One writers like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner, to name just a few. A literary analyst has pointed out that Hašek is one of the few writers of all time to combine political with misanthropic satire. In fact, The Good Soldier Švejk, he says, is the only example of this genre in the 20th century.
It seems unconscionable that Hašek’s work has been inaccessible to English readers for so long. What if Victor Hugo or Leo Tolstoy had been kept from us? It’s hard to imagine literature without them.
Let’s reverse the situation. What if you suddenly became aware that, because of some problem with translation or some other oversight, Mark Twain’s work had been virtually hidden from Europeans for 75 years? Most Americans would consider that a lamentable travesty. Well, that is what has happened to the Czech people in the case of Jaroslav Hašek. He and his work are practically non-existent in the English-reading world, an influential audience of at least 500 million people.
Finally, literary critics agree that Jaroslav Hašek wrote the grandaddy of anti-war novels. According to one critic, only the first two-thirds of The Red Badge of Courage precedes it. The Good Soldier Švejk even predated that quintessential First World War novel, All Quiet on the Western Front. More familiar to today’s readers, perhaps, is Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, set in World War Two. Hašek’s biting satire and humor is its direct ancestor also, as well as that of many others. It might be hard to imagine, but "anti-war" was not "in" before The Good Soldier Švejk. And, it should be noted that Hašek’s Švejk preceded Joseph Heller’s Yosarrian by almost 50 years.
Hašek’s talent and genius are obviously well documented. Now, let’s look at place. How did location effect Hašek and his work? Obviously, as you will soon read, that place was the city of Prague.
Again, in our opinion, Emmanuel Frynta explains it best:
"...Prague, at the turn of the century, was a collage city. Phenomena torn from different, mutually antagonistic contexts met there and clashed. Stage sets were grotesquely displayed there, set in motion, on the one hand by the natural demands of the advancing modern age, on the other by inert or artificially preserved myths. We can clearly consider this fact to have been exceptionally worthy of attention both in regards to the works of Franz Kafka and the works of Hašek....Myths and pseudomyths quite undoubtedly influenced these two Prague authors. (These were) myths that substituted in so many ways for objective law and order. (They were) out-of-date, incomprehensible and unacceptable myths.....
"In the concentrated atmosphere of collage-style Prague, right from the very start of this century, political, social, moral and philosophical problems made themselves felt (in Prague) which were only made explicit in the rest of Europe by the (time of the) First World War. This was natural and highly understandable: in societies which were entering the modern age more smoothly, and in a more organic manner, these problems were kept hidden better. They came to the surface less blatantly. Prague (however) was ‘Dadaist’ and ‘surrealist’ (and) avant la letter."
By the turn of the century Prague had become a boomtown. Large numbers of people had come to the city from the countryside to participate in the industrial revolution. The rise of a large working class spawned a cultural revolution. The empires of Central Europe ignored these intrinsic changes and became more and more decrepit and anachronistic. As the system decayed, it became absurd and irrelevant to ordinary people. When forced to respond to dissent, the imperial powers did so, more often than not, with hollow propaganda and repression.
The Austrian Empire attempted to conduct the First World War as if it were still a vibrant, viable entity. It expected its subjects to fight, die and foot the bill for what everyday people saw as nothing more than a quarrel among greedy and egotistic rulers. In the empires’ Slavic possessions, resentment reigned. And, with good reason.
World War One, amplified by modern weapons and techniques, quickly escalated to become a massive human meatgrinder. It has been eclipsed in many memories by World War Two, the most horrendous conflict of all time. However, if you set that debacle aside, World War One would easily dwarf any other in human history. Fifteen million people died, one million of them Austrian soldiers. Jaroslav Hašek participated in this conflict and examined it in The Good Soldier Švejk.
Hašek knew that a momentous, fundamental change in human history was occurring. For Central and Eastern Europe, it was the end of the old order. It was the demise of a social structure that had evolved from prehistoric times and affected every human life. Tribal and clan chieftains had evolved into Dukes, Counts and Lords, and then into Monarchs and Emperors. These despots caused and lost World War One and suddenly vanished. The decrepit empires were replaced by democratic republics, except in Russia where the bolsheviks instituted their own fatally flawed dictatorship and empire. However, as most historians agree, enough perverse elements and limbic memory of the old order remained in Central Europe to foment and fuel the biggest meatgrinder of them all, World War Two.
So, as you can see, the setting of The Good Soldier Švejk is right there on the cutting edge of historical change. It is Jaroslav Hašek’s peek, a la Charlie Chaplin, at the dawn of truly modern times.
Isn’t this great? By reading The Good Soldier Švejk, you will get a heavy dose of culture and a glimpse at modern social history in the making. You will have read an important book. And, best of all you’ll laugh and have a really good time doing it. How often does a situation like this come along?
What better way to "close the books" on the twentieth century, than by looking back at where it all began?
So, kick off your shoes, make yourself comfortable, and enjoy.