The Good Soldier Svejk - a literary character, a legend

He was a man who never lived, yet who went further in defining the Czechs in the 20th century than perhaps anyone else: the most famous of Czech literary characters, the Good Soldier Svejk. Created by the true bohemian - as well as anarchist - writer Jaroslav Hasek, Svejk is often impenetrable but ultimately irreverent beneath a simple child-like smile most often mistaken for foolishness. He makes a mockery of his "betters" within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, ultimately seeing through the hypocrisies of his day. Almost unintentionally he sabotages a regime already coming apart at the seams under the fiasco of the Great War. His greatest accomplishment: to survive in the face of adversity and absurd situations, which continues to be his legacy for many Czechs...

"And so they've killed our Ferdinand," says Svejk's charwoman, in the famous line that opens the novel, describing the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, 1914. Svejk, busy massaging his knees for rheumatism responds: "Which Ferdinand, Mrs Muller? I know two. One is a messenger at Prusa's, the chemist's, who once drank a bottle of hair oil there by mistake. And the other is Ferdinand Kokoska who collects dog manure. Neither of them is any loss."

That, in a nutshell, is Svejk: good-humouredly going about his business, oblivious to the gravity of matters at hand. Instead he tells us absurd stories about characters in ridiculous situations, forcing us right away to question his intelligence, as author Jaroslav Hasek no doubt intended. Hasek, after all, lets us know right from the start that Svejk was discharged from the military for being proven a certified idiot - how can we not help but be intrigued? Is Svejk an imbecile, or are appearances deceiving? The satirical outlook of the novel, mocking the class values, hollow bombast, and endless bureaucracy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire - within which Svejk inadvertently causes anarchy but somehow perseveres - shows us soon enough that Svejk is no fool. Even if his complacent, smiling nature does throw us for a loop...

Dr Radko Pytlik, the foremost expert on Jaroslav Hasek's work in the Czech Republic, published a book in 1982 titled 'Jaroslav Hasek and the Good Soldier Svejk`, in which he went to great lengths to explain the character of Svejk and his role within the narrative. In Dr Pytlik's words:

"Svejk is a complex and contradictory character... at once the subject and the object of the action: sufficiently passive and stupid to get himself into a tricky situation, but adept and clever enough to get out of it... Hasek deliberately chose an ambivalent type in accordance with laws of comedy and slapstick. He is a type that serves to debunk, a negative type that causes the demolition of the symbols and values of the old world."

And further:

"One of the basic features of Hasek's humour is the ironic paradox. This informs many elements and images, which unite comedy of language with comedy of situation..."

Certainly it seems like situation is something beyond Svejk's control - the character is often thrust by circumstance from one ridiculous predicament into another, often perpetuating developments by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, (or is that the right thing at the wrong time?) - predicaments that are meant to eventually take him to the front lines in the war. Paradoxically Svejk always comes out the best in the end, to the fury of Austro-Hungarian officials. Consider his examination before the medical board, aimed at determining whether Svejk is worthy for conscription, or whether he is insane:

"Long live our emperor, Franz Joseph I, gentlemen."

The case was clear as daylight. Svejk's spontaneous declaration disposed of a whole range of questions, and there remained only a few very important questions which were needed so that from Svejk's answers the initial opinion could be confirmed according to the system of the psychiatrist Dr Kallerson, Dr Heveroch, and the Englishman, Weiking.

"Is radium heavier than lead?"

"Please sir, I haven't weighed it," answered Svejk with his sweet smile.

"Do you believe in the end of the world?"

"I'd have to see that end first," Svejk answered nonchalantly. "But certainly I shan't see it tomorrow."

"Would you know how to calculate the diameter of the globe?"

"No, I'm afraid I wouldn't," answered Svejk, "but I'd like to ask you a riddle myself, gentlemen. Take a three-storied house, with eight windows on each floor. On the roof there are two dormer windows and two chimneys. On every floor there are two tenants. And now, tell me, gentlemen, in which year the house-porter's grandmother died?"

That, at least is the gist of the final examination, and of course, Svejk is found to be perfectly fit to serve - revealing the representatives of the system to be even more hare-brained than Svejk pretends to be. Thus, the irony and paradox. It is precisely that sort of scene that generations of Czechs have come to adore: subversive humour and a quiet thumbing of one's nose at authority behind its back. Many would say that it is a typical Czech characteristic, retained after suffering centuries of imposed rule under the Austrians.

Still, as Cecil Parrott noted in the introduction to The Good Soldier Svejk's English edition, there were many Czechs at the time of the book's publication after World war I, who were unhappy about the image projected by Svejk - resenting the derivative verb of 'Svejkism' at the time of the nation's First Republic, which could stand for passive resistance, but also a kind of flawed streak, a fatal spinelessness, something more patriotic natures would like to toss aside. Cecil Parrott wrote:

"...there were many Czechs who thought then and still do now that Svejk himself is not a good advertisement for the Czech character. When the new Republic was trying to establish its identity and reputation abroad patriots did not wish to be associated in the minds of foreign readers with the qualities which seemed to characterise Svejk. But these fears were unjustified. Although 'Svejkism' is a word often used to characterise the passive resistance of the Czechs, anyone who reads the book carefully and knows the Czechs will perceive that Svejk is not necessarily a Czech figure. He might be any Central European and is in fact a 'Mr Everyman', in the sense that he resembles any 'little man' who gets caught up in the wheels of a big bureaucratic machine."

Arguably the debate continues to this day, on the one side fans of the Good Soldier - on the other those who resent the book's humour. One thing both sides can agree on, whether they like the book or not: Svejk is no dummy. Behind the soldier's innocent blank moon-face there is a wealth of mischievous, but at times even moral designs. By comparison a character like Forrest Gump, often compared to Svejk in the 90s, has no spark in his eye, no sense of self-reflection, no ability for caustic criticism - or even just dumb insolence - when the whole world goes to hell.

Cecil Parrott again:

"Svejk is no ignoramus. He is the brother of a schoolmaster and is clearly an educated man. Although he expresses himself in the Prague vernacular he has a rich literary vocabulary combined with an almost encyclopaedic knowledge, no doubt derived from considerable reading of newspapers and journals. He is a close observer of human nature and some of his deductions are penetrating. In dealing with his superiors he masks his real views and, indeed, even when talking to people in his own class he rarely reveals his true thinking. At the end of Part I, in a conversation with a soldier he says exactly what he thinks of Austria-Hungary: 'A monarchy as idiotic as this ought not to exist at all.'"

One final note: last year at Prague's NATO summit a man dressed as the Good Soldier and using Svejk's typical crutches to support himself, appeared at an anti-alliance protest, shouting at the top of his voice: "To Baghdad, Mrs Muller, to Baghdad...", showing just how deep the character is etched on the common psyche here.