Tuesday, 9 December 2014


“Peace hath higher tests of manhood than battle ever knew.” - John Greenleaf Whittier

On Tuesdays I often post about books, literature and writing, so I dub it “Literary Tuesday”. I pay homage to this meme by considering today one of my favourite books, which I first read in Greek translation when I was about 12 years old. I have subsequently read it in English but unfortunately cannot read it in the original, as it was written in Czech. Sadly, it is ever topical, especially in the wake of the news of continuing warfare around the world…

The book is “The Good Soldier Schweik” by Jaroslav Hašek (1883-1923). Hašek was a Czech novelist, humorist, prankster, natural storyteller, and journalist. He was with Franz Kafka one of the key figures of literary Prague of the early 20th century, but much more colourful, blasphemous and with a sense of humour when one compares him to Kafka! Once, when Hašek was prevented from throwing himself off the Cech’s Bridge (Cechuv Most), he founded a political party called “The Party of Slight Progress Within the Limits of Law”, and spent the cash collected from this activity in his local pub. More details about his short but eventful life can be found here, in the Wikipedia entry.

“The Good Soldier Švejk” (transliterated to Schweik in English) is the abbreviated title of the unfinished novel written between 1921-22. It was fully illustrated by Josef Lada (his illustrations above) after Hašek’s death. The original Czech title of the work is “Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války” (The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War). It was meant to be a six-volume work, but unfortunately Hašek died of TB after had only completed four volumes that are now merged into one book.

The novel is a biting satire of the army, soldiers’ life and one of the first anti-war novels to be written. It begins with news of the assassination in Sarajevo that precipitated WWI. Schweik is a Czech army veteran who is immediately enthused over the prospect of joining the army once again and fighting in this new war. His gung-ho attitude puzzles officials who can’t decide whether Schweik is serious (and thus an idiot), or whether he is a subversive antiestablishmentarian (and hence extremely clever) who is intent on sabotaging the Austro-Hungarian empire’s war effort.

It is a delightful work full of lively incident and Schweik charms and wins us over with his antics. The novel ends before Schweik has a chance to be involved in any front line action, but the message of pacifism is still very strong. I was rather pleased when I visited Prague a few years ago to be able to buy a Good Soldier Schweik puppet from a local market and it still graces one of my study walls.

A review by Bob Hicks in “the Oregonian” of a new English translation of the novel can be foundhere and is good reading, whetting your appetite to read this wonderful work.

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