Tropos Kynikos: Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Švejk

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The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek    67

etatist tendencies that came to fruition in the twentieth century.51 And the stock of its protagonist, resist­ing successfully his incorporation into the state system, was rising as totalitarian trends gradually became actualized in Czech political life. Thus, in the year of Hasek's death, the popularity of his novel was seen as a purely generational infatuation. "After ten years," the two court-appointed assessors estimating the monetary value of Svejk wrote in 1923, "the content of this writing will be incomprehensible to the new genera­tion and the book will find few readers."52 They were wrong, of course, yet though the novel's audience did not diminish in the decades that fol­lowed, its political function was markedly different in the 1930s than it would be some ten years later. While the democratic atmosphere of the First Republic generated many discussions about the perils and benefits of Svejk as a potential role model, the German invasion of 1939, according to one commentator, rendered him such. "The verb 'to Svejk' appeared just at the turn of the 1920s in military slang," asserts Josef Jedlicka, "most likely as a curse in the "mouths of COs and NCOs. Civilians began to Svejk only during the [German] Protectorate and only toward its end did Svejking and Svejkism become a conscious attitude. At the same time Svejking as a strategy was transplanted into the 'strife' of [high school] students with their professors, and Svejkism as a possible interpretation of reality entered the horizon of the younger generation."53 For once, students learned something practical in school! After the victory of Socialism a la Russe in Czechoslovakia in 1948, they could have put this Svejk-inspired interpre­tation of reality to good use. But now, in a paradoxical twist, Hasek be­came an officially sanctioned author despite the patent fact that the ludic spirit of his protagonist was anything but congenial to the earnest serious­ness of those revolutionary times. The pictures of Svejk displayed in Prague pubs in the 1950s and 1960s with the message "Take it easy!" were unmistakably the popular reply to the omnipresent Communist propa­ganda posters urging the populace to heroic deeds of various kinds. And it was precisely during the short period of decreased totalitarianism in the mid-1960s that Czech intellectuals such as Kosík formulated their positive political readings of Svejk.

In the world dominated by power, Svejk is an underdog, the object of manipulation and coercion by inimical social forces that constantly threaten his very existence. Yet, despite the tremendous

51 Karel Kosík, "Svejk a Bugulma neboli zrození velkého humoru," Nedělní Lidové noviny, July 31,1993, pp. viii-ix.

52 Quoted from Lidský profil Jaroslava Haska: Korespondence a dokumenty, ed. R. Pytlík (Prague, 1979), p. 257.

53 Josef Jedlička, České typy aneb Poptávka po nasem hrdinovy (Prague, 1992), p. 78.

 

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