Tropos Kynikos: Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Švejk

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The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek    65

self-destructive, the structure of Svejk's discourse—the formal affirmation of the CP that obscures the actual breaking of the appurtenant maxims—seems to pacify the authorities. Thus, the good soldier sails unscathed through all the snares that society lays in his path. Whether this is the sheer luck of a bab­bling idiot or the brilliant stratagem of a calculating mind we will never know. But neither will the authorities—the conditio sine qua non of Svejk's success.

Throughout my study of Hasek's protagonist I stumbled across many po­litical readings of this figure, and I have presented them in all their con-tradictoriness. In so doing, however, I do not mean to impugn their valid­ity. Such interpretations, as I argued in my introduction to this book, are partial by their very nature, for they actualize the text in a highly particu­lar context. Yet what sets The Good Soldier apart from the rest of Czech fic­tion is both the intensity of its political effect and its permanence, that is, the book's capacity to be projected against a great variety of social settings.

To explain this quality of Hasek's text one must take into account, first of all, its disjointed, episodic organization, which makes it especially inviting to a political reading. It is quite easy to extract a detail or a phrase from the book only to apply it to the situation at hand. And, given the fun­damental ambiguity of Svejk, it is not surprising that it has been utilized for many different and often contradictory purposes. But there is yet an­other feature of Hasek's book that guarantees its exceptional status in modern Czech letters: its memorability. Among Czechs this novel has be­come a modern epos (in the original sense of this genre—ta epe, a composi­tion set for oral delivery).49 Most of them know it by heart, and they quote from it liberally at pregnant moments. It is this "epic" quality which has made Svejk a symbolic figure in his homeland—a recognizable locus com-munis charged with many cultural values.

But in assessing the social role of the novel, one should not lose sight of the thematic aspect of Svejk. It is about an event whose significance for modern European civilization can hardly be overestimated. World War I determined, the Czech philosopher Jan Patocka argued, the entire charac­ter of our century: "It was this war which demonstrated that the transfor­mation of the world into a laboratory actualizing reserves of energy which had been accumulating for ages had to be achieved only through a war. It signified a definitive breakthrough of the understanding of being

49 For a discussion of this genre, see Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton, 1957), esp. pp. 248-49.

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