Thursday, August 9, 2007

Jaroslav Hasek - The Good Soldier Schweik

Ok, to begin: The Good Soldier Schweik is, insofar as the term means anything, my ‘favourite’ book. Certainly it’s one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read, and re-read several times. This well-thumbed paperback has pride of place on my bookshelf and, above all, continues to offer a vivid comic portrayal of central Europe early in the last century.

Published in 1930, it is a long, winding tale about a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War One. Schweik is the hero of the tale, a dim-witted fool, idiot savant, or as the author describes him, “a modest unrecognized hero”. The book is a series of farcical and satirical escapades within the Austrian military, against the largely unspoken backdrop of the war’s senseless violence.

What I like about this book in particular is the style of humour. That The Good Soldier Schweik has its own distinct character is the quality which to my mind assures it classic status, albeit perhaps in a cult sense. On the one hand, its style is sufficiently original to allow the book to stand on its own. On the other, it is gently evocative of a peculiarly European culture and, moreover, sense of humour - especially the combination of satire and farce. Anyone who reads Schweik, I think, will soon appreciate the cheerfully daft yet politically acerbic mind of its central character, and the comic, surreal 20th century world in which he lives.

Here’s a short extract to give the flavour of The Good Soldier Schweik’s humour. Naturally, I’ll start at the beginning…

"Schweik, the Good Solider, Intervenes in the Great War:

‘So they’ve killed Ferdinand,’ said the charwoman to Mr Schweik who, having left the army many years before, when a military medical board had declared him to be chronically feeble-minded, earned a livelihood by the sale of dogs – repulsive mongrel monstrosities for whom he forged pedigrees. Apart from this occupation, he was afflicted with rheumatism, and was just rubbing his knees with embrocation.

‘Which Ferdinand, Mrs Müller?’ asked Schweik, continuing to massage his knees. ‘I know two Ferdinands. One of them does jobs for Prusa the chemist, and one day he drank a bottle of hair oil by mistake; and then there’s Ferdinand Kokoska who goes round collecting manure. They wouldn’t be any great loss, either of ‘em.’

‘No, it’s the Archduke Ferdinand, the one from Konopiste, you know Mr Schweik, the fat, pious one.’

‘Good Lord!’ exclaimed Schweik, ‘that’s a fine thing. And where did this happen?’...”

And the rest, as they say, was history. World War One began, obviously, and Hašek’s bumbling hero was immortalised in this classic novel. It’s difficult to accurately portray the humour of this book, since it works on a long story arc and many, many hilarious, rambling escapades. Best, then, to leave it to the rather good blurb on the back of my copy, which gets it nearly right…

“Because humour, real humour, knows no national boundaries, this satire on army life, about the military career of a fat little dog fancier from Prague, is one of those rare books which, while belonging to literature, abounds in the qualities which can be appreciated by the widest possible range of readers. Schweik’s adventures – as a malingerer, in the detention barracks, as a drunken chaplain’s orderly, as batman to an over-amorous lieutenant, making off with the colonel’s dog, and getting important messages all mixed up – have won him the lasting enthusiasm of readers everywhere.”


blend77 said...

never heard of this...

making a bee-line to pick it up...

will report back!


Andrew said...

Great idea for a blog!

Hasek is a fitting author for a punk-inspired reading blog - he was involved in anarchist and art circles in Prague at the beginning of the 20th century.

If you like this book, you should check out some stuff by the Czech author Karel Capek, particularly "War with the Newts" and "Apocryphal Tales". He was a favorite of Kurt Vonnegut.

gabbagabbahey said...

hey thanks andrew, I'll see if I can find some Capek. I'm a fan of Vonnegut myself... I'll probably post Slaughterhouse Five soon.

It's cool to know that about Hasek. There's an excellent site,, all about him and the book, which I found while writing this post. Recommended for anyone who wants to know about the book in more detail

blend77 said...

went looking for this today... forgot his last name!

Do! Next time i will remember... HASEK!