Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Good Soldier Švejk (1923) by Jaroslav Hašek

Josef Lada's illustration of Svejk, used in an advertisement

Book Review
The Good Soldier Švejk  (1923)
by Jaroslav Hašek
Penguin Classics 2000
(original Penguin edition 1974)
Unabridged translation by Cecil Parrott
Original illustration by Josef Lada
w/  Guide to the Pronunciation of Czech names, Maps and a description of Austro-Hungarian Currency

     Central/Eastern Europe and Russia have produced some notable hits on this blog. The Russian film Cranes Are Flying(1957), directed by Mikhail Kalatoslov has 569 views.  Sweet Movie (1974), directed by  Dušan Makavejev is over 400 page views.  Knife in the Water by Roman Polanski has 262;  and of course I've already got an existing Czech Literature label (Closely Watched Trains (1966) d. Jiří Menzel and Marketa Lazarová (1967) d. František Vlácil, both films.)

  I would probably attribute the relative popularity of those titles to a paucity of material from the usual source (Wikipedia.)  Generally speaking, if you write about a subject that has little or no coverage on Wikipedia, that post will be better placed to garner interest from the free-floating Google searching universe of readers.  This edition of  The Good Soldier Švejk, published in the Penguin Classics series, is the novelistic equivalent of a Criterion Collection release:  An unappreciated classic, unfinished, with a vexed translation/publication history, brought in an uncensored/bowdlerized edition to a new generation of readers (the original Penguin publication of this translation was in 1974.)

  From my perspective, this version succeeds on all levels an is in all likelihood the readers' best choice for  obtaining a reasonably priced, accurate English language edition of this text.  The inclusion of the block-print-esque original illustrations by Josef Lada is a nice touch, and mitigates the fact that this is a 752 page UNFINISHED four volume read.   The introduction by the translator thoroughly explores the biography of the author, and gives decent explanation of the difficulties of translating a work in Czech where the characters speak Czech, German, Polish, Hungarian and Russian into English.

   Švejk is a kind of Candide type figure, or holy fool, and his adventures as a low-level Czech soldier behind the lines of the Eastern Front during the First World War present an indelible portrait of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during this period, an Empire which collapsed soon after the completion of the war.  The Czechs were "second class" citizens in an Empire where first class were German speakers, and Hungarians inside Hungary, and third class were other Slavs in the Eastern Part of the Empire, and the enemies were Southern Slavs (Serbians) and the Russians (also Slavs.)  Thus, the Czech's were a potential "fifth column" and were treated both with trust and suspicion by the German speaking elite.

  The mode of storytelling is both picaresque and the "pay by the word" model of serial publication that is more familiar to the 18th and 19th century.  At the same time, the subject of World War I was very fresh in the early 1920s and Hasek writes with a savage satirical bent that is entirely missing from other books published after World War I about the war itself.  This satirical mode would become more widespread after World War II, Catch-22, for example, is an American example of the type of attitude that Hasek exemplifies.

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