Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The Good Soldier Schweik, by Jaroslav Hasek

This is, uniquely, a very funny novel about the First World War.

Schweik is a Czech who is called up to serve in the army of the Austrian Empire, but at the end of over 400 pages he has still not reached the front line. Instead he manages to get involved in a whole series of ludicrous misadventures, which drive his superiors raving mad. His defence in each case is very simple. "Schweik!" they cry in a mixture of rage and frustration, "Are you a complete imbecile?", to which he replies, "Beg to report, sir; yes, I am a complete imbecile, sir", and illustrates the point to launching into a long, rambling and wholly irrelevant anecdote. He maintains an innocent, guileless expression throughout, and never once complains: on the contrary, he thinks prison food is quite good and enjoys his spell in the lunatic asylum. Long before the end of the book, of course, you suspect that Schweik's assumption of imbecility is actually a cunning ruse which succeeds in protecting him from punishment.
By contrast the men in positions of authority whom Schweik encounters, whether army officers, police chiefs or clergy, are always either lunatics, drunks, brutal martinets or hopeless incompetents; sometimes all of these simultaneously. The only partial exception is Lieutenant Lukash, whom Schweik serves as a batman, and who acts as a kind of despairing Don Quixote to Schweik's Sancho Panza. The administration of the multiracial Austrian Empire is shown as stupefyingly shambolic: troop trains never arrive, rations are not delivered,the wrong people are arrested and imprisoned, private soldiers and most civilians are treated like serfs, and the Czechs, Magyars, Germans and others who make up the Austrian army all hate each other and often cannot understand each other's language. Schweik's behaviour, in fact, is perhaps the only sane way to behave in these circumstances - though on the rare occasions when Schweik himself is given any authority, as for instance when he has to enforce an officer's order, he himself behaves as a relentless bully.

Schweik's infinite capacity for doing the wrong thing of course plays its own inimitable part in the chaos. To take one example from the many: the Ausrian military code is based on a certain page in an enormous novel called "Sins of the Fathers", but unfortunately it has escaped the attention of the authorities that the novel is published in two volumes. When Schweik is dispatched to fetch the copies of the book, he of course brings volume 2 instead of volume 1, with predictable results.

The author died in 1923 with his book unfinished, with Schweik having been taken prisoner by his own side, who have mistaken him for a Russian. I often wonder what might have become of him. Would he ever have reached the front line? Or would he have become part of the Czech Legion, which got involved in the civil war in Russia after the Bolshevik revolution, and caused even more chaos there? I can't imagine that he would have been killed; people like Schweik never die.

Schweik remains a folk hero in the modern Czech Republic. Schweik puppets are on sale, complete with dopey grin and pot of beer. The first time I visited Prague I asked our guide what she and her fellow-students did when the Soviet tanks invaded the city to crush the "Prague Spring" in 1968. She told me they behaved in a way of which Schweik would have thoroughly approved: they removed all road signs and street names, and when the bemused Russian soldiers got lost and asked for help, they either acted very stupid or gave them completely misleading directions. It was good to know that the spirit of Schweik still lived.

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