Hašek's Good Soldier Švejk as a Picaresque Novel

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Hasek's Good Soldier Svejk as a Picaresque Novel   257

any picaresque novel, it does not follow that the effect can be achieved only through a first-person narrative. The vision that Svejk expresses in his speeches is confirmed by the work as a whole; if at the beginning Svejk describes the causes of the war in terms of a barroom brawl, the course of the novel teaches us that this perspec­tive is far closer to the truth than the inflated rhetoric of official military pronouncements or the perspective of enthusiastic supporters of the Austrian cause such as Lieutenant Dub.

Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine a novel consisting only of Svejk's narrative from beginning to end. Considering his inimitable style, such a work would resemble Tristram Shandy more than the straightforward chronological narrative we find in Svejk; indeed J. P. Stern has compared the digressive principle of the character Svejk with that of Sterne in his novel.18 But if the impossibility of a first-person narrative is related to the character of Svejk, then we must examine how Svejk does differ from other picaros.

Though the heroes of picaresque novels are not known for their psychological depth, Svejk seems to be even shallower than most. J. P. Stern says that "Hasek does not probe into the hidden recesses of Svejk's consciousness,"19 and this is surely an understatement. Indeed, Svejk, as is suggested in the illustrations by Hasek's friend Josef Lada, is more a caricature than a character.20 And yet, paradoxically, he is probably the most memorable figure of all picaros. Even those, like Rene Weliek,21 who refuse to regard Hasek's novel as a work of art, do admit that Svejk himself is quite unforgettable. Many critics have com­pared Svejk to other "mythic" figures of Western literature, such as Don Quixote, Faust, or (more appropriately) Sancho Panza. But neither his lack of psychological depth nor his "mythic" dimension disqualify Svejk as a picaro, since he does not lose our sympathy on either count, nor, on the other hand, is he any less subject to the vicissitudes of fortune during the course of the novel.

It could also be pointed out that the novel is not equally picaresque in its style throughout. The latter part of the novel expands into a kind of epic breadth; the cast of characters stabilizes somewhat, subplots de­velop which do not involve Svejk directly, individual episodes are less discrete and more interconnected than those at the beginning. Yet the picaresque tone remains; the only "causality" connecting these episodes lies in such factors as Lieutenant Dub's enduring hatred of Svejk, and thus the picaresque sense of an essentially irrational universe is not undermined. Another feature not strictly picaresque is Hasek's brilliant use of interpolated documents, such as official military com­munications, for ironic purposes, a practice so frequent and so telling in its effects that it has led Frynta to describe the novel as a "collage."22

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