Hašek's Good Soldier Švejk as a Picaresque Novel


254    Germano-Slavica

In fact, it is hard to imagine any conclusive ending to Svejk's story. We know (from Hasek's "Preface") that Svejk will survive the war, but one cannot see the plot being directed in any way towards a final outcome. In this open-endedness, Svejk displays another characteristic of the picaresque; at least. Miller suggests that those novels which have a happy or at least conclusive ending (such as Gil Bias or Moll Flanders) have by that token taken one step away from the picaresque and towards the romance.

Another feature which Miller finds common to most picaresque novels is the pattern in which the hero's fortunes rise and fall continually due to events beyond his control, and Svejk is no exception in this regard.12 Throughout the novel Svejk is in and out of prison, in and out of the good graces of his commanding officers. The most extreme example of this comes in the last chapter of Hasek's manuscript, where Svejk, having been saved from imminent hanging by the timely arrival of a telegram from his company, returns there only to be hauled in front of his division captain by his arch-foe, Lieutenant Dub. Dub argues that Svejk be dealt with severely, and at this point the captain suffers a severe attack of the gout, causing us to fear the worst. But the gout passes as quickly as it came, leaving the captain in better spirits than before, whereupon he orders that Svejk be released, assigned a new uniform, and given some pocket money. Svejk, though, never experiences the periods of extreme good fortune enjoyed by other picaros such as Simplicissimus and Moll Flanders; like Lazarillo, the most he enjoys (or expects) from life is a full belly and no immediate danger to life and limb.

Like his fellow picaros, then, Svejk seems to be at the mercy of a fate which is very fickle indeed. Like them also, he seems to possess a kind of invulnerability. In almost every picaresque novel we see the picaro absorb an incredible degree of physical and mental abuse and still emerge relatively unscathed. Svejk takes this even a step further; far from being wounded by his setbacks, he often manages to turn them into victories of a sort. He spends what seems like half the novel in confine­ment of one kind or another; but it never seems to affect his spirits in the slightest degree. Indeed, his confinement to a lunatic asylum is a source of most pleasant memories:

When Svejk later on described life in the lunatic asylum, he did so in terms of exceptional eulogy. "I'm blowed if I can make out why lunatics kick up such a fuss about being kept there. They can crawl about stark naked on the floor, or caterwaul like jackals, or rave and bite. If you was to do anything like that in an open street, it'd make people stare, but in the asylum it's just taken as a matter of course. Why the amount of liberty there is something that even the socialists have never dreamed of... .I liked being in that asylum, I can tell you, and while I was there I had the time of my life."13