Hašek's Good Soldier Švejk as a Picaresque Novel


 Hasek's Good Soldier Svejk as a Picaresque Novel    255

Part of the irony is that Svejk, who seems at first glance a helpless pawn in the hands of fate, knows precisely what is good for him, and will always avoid the main danger which threatens him: exposure to live action at the front. Nevertheless, even though Svejk may achieve a larger degree of control over his destiny than other picaros, he remains essentially like them in this respect: subject to frequent and extreme vacillations in his private fortunes, he manages, through his wits and toughness, to emerge unscathed. While other picaros enjoy periods of prosperity and recognition, Svejk at least obtains the satisfaction of making fools out of his tormentors, most notably Lieutenant Dub.

Let us turn from Miller to Claudio Guillen, who offers some different criteria for identifying a picaresque novel.14 The picaro, according to Guillen, is in the situation of a "half-outsider" who is never completely at home in his society, but can never completely divorce himself from it. When we apply this to Svejk, we are faced with a dilemma, for instead of a homogeneous society through which the picaro makes his way, we are presented with two quite distinct groups: the military bureaucracy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with all its representatives, on the one hand, and the common soldiers and civilians, primarily Czech, who are seen as the victims of the first group. Though Svejk clearly "belongs," in some sense, to the second group, it would be a mistake to assume, as most Marxist critics have done, that Svejk represents the common man in a constant struggle with his exploiters. For one thing, he is capable of complete loyalty and even self-sacrifice in the service of his superiors, not only Lieutenant Lukash but the thoroughly corrupt Chaplain Otto Katz. Indeed, the bond that forms between him and Lieutenant Lukash seems closer than his relation with any of his comrades. He never shows any particular sympathy for the misfortunes of his fellows. Thus Svejk serves the first group without belonging to it, and belongs to the second group without ever compromising his self-reliance and self-enclosedness. It seem fair, therefore, to describe him as a "half-outsider."

Svejk conforms to other of Guillen's criteria. In the course of his adventures he observes a wide variety of social groups, including dif­ferent social strata, different professions, different character types, and different nationalities. Also, his movement is both horizontal in space and, to some extent, vertical along the social ladder. True, compared to the social fluctations of a Moll Flanders, Svejk's development in this area is limited; he is promoted from Lieutenant Lukash's private batman to company orderly, and this promotion seems to involve no real change in his relations with either his fellows or his superiors. But he is physi­cally present at arguments among officers as well as discussions among common soldiers, and thus is able to observe the full range of the military