Hašek's Good Soldier Švejk as a Picaresque Novel
a Sancho Panza without the transcendental perspective of his master. As soon as the vision of Sancho Panza—that of an essentially debased world where one must struggle for mere subsistence—becomes the only one presented, it loses much of the comedy it has in Cervantes, and we are forced to take it far more seriously. This is not to say that individual picaresque novels are not very funny; Svejk is certainly funnier than most. But we are never allowed to dismiss the picaresque vision as merely that of a rogue or a buffoon; once we view the world from the picaro's eyes, we are not likely to forget his frightening perspective.
Historically, the picaresque novel arose as a reaction against a literary form which was the embodiment and glorification of heroism and codes of honor: the heroic romance. In response to the charmed world portrayed in these romances, with individuals larger and better than real men, the picaresque novel presented a world stripped of all illusions, as a degraded, senseless and chaotic realm. All the formal and thematic features of the picaresque which were discussed earlier—e.g., its episodic, a-causal plot and its unresolved ending—contribute to this sense of a world where nothing is permanent and there is no particular meaning to existence. It is difficult to pinpoint any one literary form against which Hasek and other twentieth-century picaresque writers reacted in the same way as their predecessors; but perhaps they saw that the novel of nineteenth-century realism, though purged of the most overt elements of earlier romances, still preserved the possibility of heroic stature and individual codes of honor, which Hasek saw as preserving the myths which helped lead to a world war. It is interesting to note that George Skvor, in an article on Czech literature from World War One, has pointed out that Hasek's novel is the antithesis of the kind of fiction which emerged from the Czech national legions; the latter showed the war as giving opportunities for individual heroism, and as being ultimately justified as it led to Czech independence.35 Since these works began to appear at the same time as Svejk, it would not be strictly accurate to say that Svejk was a reaction against them. But it is obvious that Hasek was familiar enough with such attitudes, and in his novel he rejects them explicitly. There will always be those who see war as a glorious and noble endeavor, but one can hope that there will likewise always be a picaro to place it in its proper light: a barroom brawl magnified to grotesque proportions.
1 Emanuel Frynta, Hasek, the Creator of Svejk (Prague, 1965), p. 111.
2 Radko Pytlík, "Svejk jako literární typ," Česká Literatura,21, No. 1 (1973), 138.
3 Siegfried Streller, "Haseks 'Svejk' und Brechts 'Schweyk im Zweiten Weltkrieg,'" Zeitschrift für Slawistik, 25, No. 3 (1980), 422.