Speaking Volumes

September 4, 1998

Jaroslav Hasek's Good Soldier Svejk

A sorry-looking Penguin on the shelf reminds me that I first read The Good Soldier Svejk and his Fortunes in the World War (1921-23), Jaroslav Hasek's picaresque tale of the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian empire, at Oxford more than 20 years ago, soon after the appearance of a new, unabridged translation, now the standard work, by the cherishable Cecil Parrott. I do not remember what led me to it, other than a seductive display in Blackwell's, but I do remember what hooked me in. Svejk has kept me company ever since.

It was chiefly the bohemian bizarrerie of Hasek's own life, much of which seeps into Svejk's. He lost his position as editor of the zoological magazine Animal World because he began inventing animals and animal behaviour; he stood as a candidate in a by-election for the Party of Moderate Progress Within the Limits of the Law, a figment of his imagination; he was awarded the Russian Order of St George, fourth class, for gallantry at the Battle of Zborov (1917). Unlike his alter ego, he did not succeed in being captured by his own side - the crowning glory of Svejk's military career - but he did manage to become a political commissar in the Red Army, not to mention deputy commandant of Bugulma, in Russia.

So there is a satisfying amount of obscenity, debauchery, lunacy, bigamy and anarchy in The Good Soldier Svejk. There is also drollery, one of my favourite qualities. The Good Soldier himself can be very droll. Officially, Svejk is a patent idiot - he has a certificate to prove it - but he is nobody's fool. Caught reading a newspaper, he is given a savage dressing-down by the colonel of the regiment. For a good half-hour Svejk stays mute. "I looked them all squarely in the eyes without blinking and kept quiet, my right hand at the peak of my cap and my left on the seam of my trousers." Finally, exasperated, the colonel roars at him. "Are you a half-wit or aren't you?" "Humbly report, sir, I'm a half-wit." "Very well then. Twenty-one days' strict confinement for imbecility, two days a week fasting, a month confined to barracks, 48 hours in handcuffs, immediate arrest, don't let him eat, truss him, show him that the monarchy doesn't need half-wits. We'll flog those newspapers out of your head, you bastard."

I used to think this far-fetched. Then I too tried to be a good soldier in another imperial army. One fine day I was reading a book in the anteroom of the officers' mess. In came the colonel of the regiment. "What are you doing?" he asked. In the circumstances there seemed no adequate answer to this question, so, like Svejk, I remained silent. The colonel proceeded to convey to me that reading - reading books - did not by any means constitute appropriate behaviour in public.

Reading was an activity suitable only to the privacy of one's own room - supposing, that is, one went so far as to indulge in it at all. Incarceration there was mercifully brief and I moved on to other things, and, it must be admitted, other books. Despite the army, the military refrain somehow continued. Latterly, working on a biography of Basil Liddell Hart, I began to think again about loneliness in war, and came to realise that, more than most mortals, officers were almost never completely alone: they had their soldier-servants. I turned to Svejk for further enlightenment. He did not disappoint. "The institution of officers' orderlies is of very ancient origin. It seems that even Alexander the Great had his batman. What is certain, however, is that in the period of feudalism the knights' hirelings performed this role. What else was Don Quixote's Sancho Panza? I am surprised that no one has yet written up the history of army orderlies. If anyone had, we should read in it how at the siege of Toledo the duke of Almavira was so hungry that he ate his orderly without salt, which the duke himself mentions in memoirs, relating that his orderly had fine, tender, succulent meat tasting like something between chicken and donkey."

Svejk is the Sancho Panza of our time, lippy, licentious, life-enhancing. Right hand at the peak of my cap, left hand on the seam of my trousers, I salute him.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

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