The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Svejk During the World War, Book(s) Three & Four

Jaroslav Hašek

Book cover

OK, I’ve been putting off this review long enough. I worked my way through all four books (three volumes) of Sadlon’s translation of this classic of Czech literature, and though it may make me a bad Czech, I felt pretty neutral about it. Much like Tristram Shandy, and to some extent Don Quixote, the book is more or less a piling-up of marginally related stories, “just one damn thing after another.” The novel is unfinished–Hasek died while writing it–but because of this fundamental characteristic, I don’t think it matters that much. I doubt Hasek had a satisfying conclusion in mind that died along with him.

The novel contains very little in the way of character development. Svejk doesn’t really change over the course of the book, although his character is complex enough that I do think you continue “getting to know him” a fair amount at least into Book Two. But he remains something of a cipher. He’s clearly an active and enthusiastic shirker, and uses his “certified idiocy” to the fullest advantage. He is an anarchist in spirit, like his creator, with little time for the absurdities of church and state, but is not political about it. He is a frequent spinner of yarns, but it was never clear to me whether he really took pleasure in it, did it compulsively, or used it as a diversionary tactic. I suppose it is a combination of all three. He’s not a totally likable character; he has a definite vindictive streak and is impulsive. But at the end of the novel, I still didn’t really feel I had a sense of Svejk as a person; what motivates him, what he would be doing if he wasn’t drafted, etc. He came across to me as more of a symbol than an individual. It doesn’t seem like this is particularly of interest to Hasek as a writer; none of the other characters in the book are rounded or develop over time either, and Svejk doesn’t have any complex relationships. (His relationship with his commander Lukas does span the full novel, and is charming at times, but it doesn’t come across to me as very deep.) I guess in summary, Svejk is basically a negative presence, kind of a Bartleby–you know what he is against but not really what he is for. This seems to me the biggest contrast with Quixote, who clearly has a positive (if deluded) vision of the world, and is much more relatable for that reason.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a national symbol for a people who have generally been ground under one or another heel is of this type. One thing I will say in the novel’s favor is that I think it is very valuable to have a protagonist in a military story who is cowardly and, more or less, a deserter. I think this can often be the most honorable or moral way to respond to a military situation, but it is virtually never portrayed as such in literature or other pop culture. It is interesting to me that Finn, one of the leads of the new Star Wars film, is such a character. (Also of note, in Potsdam, Germany, there is a memorial to the Unknown Deserter, dedicated to “a man who refused to kill his fellow men.”) This alone is a significant contribution, and is fitting that the character was created by the anarchist Hasek.

Addendum: Although I have never read it, Catch-22 probably deserves a mention in the discussion of this last issue.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars