The National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
The Second Annual Czech & Slovak History & Culture Conference
"The Czech and Slovak 20th Century in Retrospect: 1918-1938"
March 2-3, 2001
Svejk: A Hero For Our Time
Jaroslav Hasek and his greatest work, Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války, The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Svejk During the World War, have been subjects of innumerable articles, essays, studies, and books. Written by a great variety of individuals, ranging from friends and acquaintances, to admirers, detractors, and literary scholars, they started appearing almost immediately after the publication of the unfinished novel and the author's premature death in 1923. One actually comes across references to the "scientific exploration" of both the novel and its author. I was humbled by the invitation to speak here today. I am not a scientist or an academician, literary or otherwise. Thus you might naturally ask why am I here and what could I possibly add to the vast pool of information and opinions about The Good Soldier Svejk.
The reason I was invited to present Svejk to you is that I have had, as some will surely put it, if they have not done so already, the audacity to answer my friend, colleague, and collaborator Mike Joyce's insistent call to translate Svejk from Czech into English, although it had been done before by others already.
If you indulge me then, I will share a few observations that Mike and I have made in the process of producing the new translation of Jaroslav Hasek's masterpiece of world literature.
A BOOK WORTH NOTICING
The next question one might pose is why talk about this book at all?
It has been judged by many to be one of the 100 Best Books of the 20th Century. It has been vastly popular in Central Europe, especially in Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. Svejk has been translated into more than 50 languages and published in more than five-hundred editions. However, those facts beg, rather than answer the question. Yet, they indicate that Svejk strikes a chord with a huge number of people.
The continuing reissues also indicate that Svejk speaks to new generations of people across time. That is rather amazing given the fact that the milieu the book is set in is very dated and growing more so every day. That is true even in its native country, the Czech Lands. Let me quote the foreword to the Encyclopedia for those who love Svejk, published in 1998: "In times when ten-year old children work with computers, while many of them don't know what an inkwell is, each new edition of The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Svejk During the World War perhaps will have to be equipped with explanation notes, growing maybe more and more numerous with time."
Allow me to repeat: an Encyclopedia for those who love Svejk. Not a booklet of Cliff notes, but an encyclopedia consisting of more than 300 pages. A second volume, even exceeding the extent of the first by a few dozen pages was published the following year. It has been translated already into Russian, parts are being translated into Hebrew, and a Polish language version is being considered by a publishing house in Krakow. A Ukrainian reprint of the novel itself will include illustrations from the Encyclopedia. All of that 80 years after the first publication of the Czech original.
The novel is set in the times of World War I in Austria-Hungary, a country which, as someone put it, was a figment of bureaucratic imagination, with borders constructed by political compromise and military conquest and which held in subjection numerous nationalities, with different languages and cultures, for 300 years. The multiethnic, and in this respect modern Empire was full of long-standing grievances and tensions.
The book's central character, Josef Svejk, is a Czech veteran of the Austro-Hungarian army , as we learn in the first sentence of the Czech original of the novel. After the outbreak of World War One, he is drafted back into the army as cannon fodder to die for an Emperor he despises.
The German speaking Habsburgs and their imperial administrators had ruled the Czech Lands from 1526. By the arrival of the 20th century, Prague, the seat of the Czech Kingdom, had become a boomtown. Large numbers of people had come to the city from the countryside to participate in the industrial revolution. The rise of a large working class spawned a cultural revolution. The Austro-Hungarian Empire ignored these changes and became more and more decrepit and anachronistic. As the system decayed, it became absurd and irrelevant to ordinary people. When forced to respond to dissent, the imperial powers did so, more often than not, with hollow propaganda and repression.
The Austrian Empire attempted to conduct the First World War as if it were still a vibrant, viable entity. It expected its subjects to fight, die and foot the bill for what everyday people saw as nothing more than a quarrel among greedy and egotistic rulers. In the empires' Slavic possessions, resentment reigned. And, with good reason. Among others, the war was waged mainly against Serbs and Russians, both Slavic people, by Germans and German speaking Austrians, and the Slavic Czechs, Slovaks, and some Poles subjugated by them.
World War One, amplified by modern weapons and techniques, quickly escalated to become a massive human meatgrinder. Fifteen million people died, one million of them Austrian soldiers. Jaroslav Hasek participated in this conflict and examined it in The Good Soldier Svejk.
In both civilian and military life, Josef Svejk lives by his wits. His chief ploy is to appear witless to those in authority. In fact, he is fond of pointing out that he has been certified to be an imbecile by an official military medical commission, a fact also included in the first sentence of the novel. Consequently, he reasons, he cannot be held responsible for his questionable actions because he's a certified nitwit! His method of subverting the Austrian Empire is to carry out his orders to an absurd conclusion.
The method, commonly known as "svejking" has been analyzed and commented upon by countless number of people. The morals of the character, just as those of the author, are still questioned or even deplored by some to this day. One example from a literary site on the Internet: "Schweik is a totally undisciplined liar, drunkard, apparently stupid man, who, however, actually outwits his superiors and the army."
One fact is undeniable: the method has been so popular and successful that political, military, and intellectual leaders at times feel the need to openly decry it and those who are suspected of employing it. The novel was banned from the Czechoslovak army in 1925, the Polish translation was confiscated in 1928, the Bulgarian translation was suppressed in 1935, and the German translation burned on Nazi bonfires in 1933. Gustáv Husák, the General Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party who replaced the Prague Spring reformer Alexander Dubček in that post after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia, and assumed the Presidency as well, exhorted the population in a speech during the 1970's period of the so-called "normalization" to STOP SVEJKING!!!
Apparently, Svejk, the novel, its title character, who's managed to acquire a life independent of the literary work, and "svejking" are phenomena worth noting, and understanding.
THE CULTURAL CONTEXT
One of Jaroslav Hasek's biographers, Emanuel Frynta, wrote these words about Prague, a principal theater of operations for both Josef Svejk and Jaroslav Hasek:
"...Prague, at the turn of the century, was a collage city. Phenomena torn from different, mutually antagonistic contexts met there and clashed. Stage sets were grotesquely displayed there, set in motion, on the one hand by the natural demands of the advancing modern age, on the other by inert or artificially preserved myths. . ."
"In the concentrated atmosphere of collage-style Prague," Emmanuel Frynta continues, "right from the very start of this century, political, social, moral and philosophical problems made themselves felt (in Prague) which were only made explicit in the rest of Europe by the (time of the) First World War. This was natural and highly understandable: in societies which were entering the modern age more smoothly, and in a more organic manner, these problems were kept hidden better. They came to the surface less blatantly. Prague (however) was ‘Dadaist' and ‘surrealist'."
An oppressive Imperial regime was tested to its limits by the tensions referred to by Frynta in the preceding two paragraphs. As noted earlier, the system became absurd, and Svejk's method of subverting the absurd system is to carry out his orders to an absurd conclusion.
An individual absurdity which exacts a price of undesirable consequences in one's personal life is a tough enough problem in and of itself for anybody to deal with. When a chain of endless absurdities is being created and upheld by the machinery of an Empire or within any other large, mechanistic, highly bureaucratic and progressively and ultimately dishonest and inequitable system, one can be driven to madness or violence.
The spreading of absurdity is a key element upon which Mike Joyce and I rest our prediction that Svejk will become a household word even in the United States and other Anglophone countries at last, just as Catch 22 has.
"In a world where the greedy and ambitious slam the public from crisis to crisis," says Bob Hicks of the Portland Oregonian, "gratuitously wrecking daily life as they destroy states and pull down civilizations, Svejk represents the underground -- a passive-aggressive resister who beats the rules of the game by applying his own crazy logic to them."
WHY SHOULD WE CARE?
Do we know which world Bob Hicks is talking about? Is he referring exclusively to the world so ingeniously captured as a snapshot by Jaroslav Hasek's craft and genius in his book? Bob Hicks, the reviewer of our translation of Svejk states unequivocally the following:
"Unlike K., fellow Czech Franz Kafka's stunted stand-in for modern intellectual man, the rascal Svejk belongs to the men and women of the workaday world -- the bartenders, cleaning women, gamekeepers, petty larcenists, lathe operators, janitors, drunkards, office workers, shopkeepers, undertakers, adulterers, nightclub bouncers, butchers, farmers, cab drivers and others who populate Hasek's imagination as they stumble through the lunacies of the first World War."
Let me assure you: all those people and many like them populate our world today. The increasing number and burden of absurdities they deal with is putting them in a position to relate to and viscerally understand Svejk, i.e. the book, the character, and the method. Untold hundreds of thousands and perhaps even millions of Americans experience and operate in "svejkárna". This is a relatively new, younger derivation of the original term "svejking". "Svejking" is the method for surviving "svejkárna", which is a situation or institution of systemic absurdity requiring the employment of "svejking" for one to survive and remain untouched by it.
Svejk is indeed an ascending hero for our time. Not because we desire it or prefer it on the basis of some intellectual abstraction, a result of scientific endeavor, or any other sublime exercise of reason. It is a matter of survival in the inhospitable circumstances of the ever more complex and absurd entanglements of the postmodern society we have become. Survival, after all, is not sufficient, but the first necessary condition for realizing other, higher order goals, lofty or otherwise. And Svejk represents one of the most unique survival strategies ever conceived by man.
Emanuel Frynta (1923-1975) Hasek, The creator of Schweik (Prague, c 1965).
Sir Cecil Parrott, The Bad Bohemian: The Life of Jaroslav Hasek, creator of ‘The Good Soldier·Svejk' (London, 1978).
Leslie A Fiedler, The Antiwar Novel and the Good Soldier Schweik, in: Collected Essays (New York, 1971).
Hana Arie-Haifman, Svejk, the homo ludens (1984, in Language and Literary Theory, ed. by Benjamin A. Stolz, I.R. Titunik, Lubomír Doležel);
Jindřich Chalupecký, The Tragic Comedy of Jaroslav Hasek (1983, in Cross Currents: A Yearbook of Central European Culture, number 23);
Karel Kosík, Hasek and Kafka (1983, in Cross Currents: A Yearbook of Central European Culture, number 23);
Holger Klein, ed. by, The First World War in Fiction, (1976);
J. Durych, Ejhle, člověk (1928, in Czech)