Hašek's Good Soldier Švejk as a Picaresque Novel


Hasek's Good Soldier Svejk as a Picaresque Novel   261

than a huge scuffle. However, Dobossy's translation, in which the "sie" clearly refers to the butchers of the general staff, speaks of an uprising (Aufruhr) and suggests a kind of triumph at the demise of the butchers, which is strangely contradicted by the cynicism of "es lebe die Armee!"32 If any doubt remains as to the lack of any desire on the part of Svejk and his fellow soldiers for any change in the status quo, one need only recall Svejk's anecdote at the end of the third volume about the officer who decides to treat his men like reasonable people instead of animals. Svejk relates with apparent approval how he was sent by his fellow soldiers to explain to him that his conduct was losing him the men's respect!

I have devoted so much space to Dobossy's views partly because they offer a perfect illustration of what Svejk and other picaresque novels are not. As Robert Alter points out, "the picaresque imagination is pecul­iarly an imagination that can make out nothing beyond the status quo."33 It is a profoundly anti-ideological vision, in the sense that it rejects any belief that the chaotic world represented is in any way subject to im­provement. The only alternative is a complete withdrawal from the world, as in Simplicissimus, for the sake of religious meditation. But even this alternative no longer holds; the satire of religious institutions, which has been a dominant motif of these novels from Lazarillo onward, has in Svejk become a complete scepticism about the possibility of any other-worldly justification.

Though Svejk has seldom been considered as a picaresque novel, it has often been included in another category, which many consider it to have founded: the modem anti-war novel. Leslie Fiedler considers Svejk in this context, and some of his comments are interesting:

The antiwar novel did not end war, but it memorializes the end of something almost as deeply rooted in the culture of the West: the concept of Honor. It comes into existence at the moment when in the West men, still nominally Christian, come to believe that the worst thing of all is to die... ."34

Fiedler is certainly correct in suggesting that Svejk and its successors negate the concept of Honor, but he is not right in saying that they were the first to do so. He claims that the only previous characters to do so were figures of low comedy, such as Sancho Panza, Falstaff, and Leporello. But this vision has always characterized the picaresque novel; in Lazarillo we remember the man who is on the verge of starva­tion, yet whose code of honor forces him to maintain the external show of a noble lord. The picaresque vision has always ridiculed codes of honor whether they lead only to the ridiculous but essentially harmless behavior of Lazarillo's master, or to the slaughter of a world war. Yet it would be wholly incorrect to suggest that the picaresque novel is essen­tially a form  of  low  comedy.  The  picaresque  hero  is  more  than  a  Sancho