Hasek's Heroes

The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek unabridged translation by Cecil Parrott 752 pps., Thomas Y. Crowell, $10 cloth, $3.95 paperback

"GREAT TIMES call for great men," begins Jaroslav Hasek's account of life in the Czech division of the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I. The good soldier Svejk, who made a peacetime living by selling stolen dogs after getting himself discharged from the army as a certified imbecile, wasn't meant to be a conventional great man. But Hasek didn't think much of conventional great times either. He thought World War I was a pretty fair sample--an enormous sacrifice of common people's lives on the altar of such gods as emperors' glory and capitalists' profits.

Under the circumstances, just as Catch-22 of the next war would be that the way to act sane was to act crazy, Hasek maintained that the way to act intelligent was to act idiotic. So the good soldier, Svejk, goes through the war doing everything he's told, but managing to get it just wrong enough to stay far from the front lines where he might have to do some fighting. It's hard for the army to shoot someone who turns up miles behind his regiment, beaming, innocent, full of patriotic fervor, and consumed by contrition because somehow he can't seem to find it. Only on rare occasions, with other ordinary soldiers, does Svejk let his real opinions show, and even on these rare occasions he usually allows himself not openness but sarcasm--long accounts of how overjoyed he'll be if only he's allowed to suffer for the Emperor, like Hasek's description of a patriotically religious painting of a dying soldier with his leg torn off, smiling blissfully, as though they were bringing him an ice cream.

Paul Selver translated The Good Soldier Schweik into English in 1930, and it won a lot of admirers in that form--the New York Times, for instance, used to periodically announce that the Czech national character as portrayed by Hasek made the victory of the Czech revolution over its bureaucratic opponents inevitable. Since the Soviet invasion, Svejk's appearances in the American press have been less frequent, so maybe it's time for a new translation on those grounds alone. Moreover, the old translation took out all the obscenity and most of the blasphemy in the novel, which left more than you might expect but meant toning down most of the dialogue and eliminating entirely such scenes as Svejk's nomination for a Bronze Medal for meticulous execution of his obligations:

'Haf you viped your arsch?' the major-general asked Svejk.

'Humbly report, sir, everything is in order.'


'Von't you sheet no more?'

'Humbly report, sir, I've finished.'

The old translation was also a lot shorter--it ended with Svejk, dressed in a Russian uniform, being captured by the Austrian army, whereas Parrott's new one tells all about his subsequent trial. It also includes many of the digressions that Paul Selver cut out. Some of the digressions are extremely funny--for instance, Animal World magazine's ex-editor's description of the Sulphur-Bellied Whale, the Artful Prosperian, the Edible Ox ("the ancient prototype of the cow") and the Sepia Infusorian ("which I characterized as a sort of sewer rat")--and others are hardly funny at all. The new translation has more good stuff in it and it's probably more accurate, and the old one is more manageable: You pays your money and you takes your choice.

Neither translation hides the self-denial implicit in Svejk's pretensions to imbecility, relieved chiefly by his ability to laugh at all the people he fools, or the callousness, however humorous, that's necessary to his survival. Early in the book, for instance, he asks the wife of an arrested bartender about her husband:

'A week ago he--got--ten--years.'

'There you are, then,' said Svejk, 'so he's already served seven days of it.'

At such moments Hasek's good soldier seems like the martyr in his drunken chaplain's painting:

No suffering could be detected on the martyr's face, nor the joy nor the glory of martyrdom either. He only stared, open-mouthed, as though he wanted to say: 'How on earth did this happen to me? What on earth are you doing to me, gentlemen?'

BUT HASEK's life, no less than his book, suggests that under the right circumstances there are other options open to people besides self-protective passivity in the face of martyrdom. As a young man--Parrott tells the story in an illuminating introduction--Hasek behaved in many ways like the people in The Good Soldier Svejk. Dissatisfied with the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Austria-Hungary, with the parliamentary politicking the monarchy permitted, and with the middle-class respectability his family pursued, Hasek set about making himself objectionable to them. He was editor of Animal World magazine, and he made up imaginary animals to write about. He founded a 'cynological institute'--a dog fanciers' store. He ran a sarcastic campaign for parliament as the candidate of the Party of Moderate and Peaceful Progress Within the Limits of the Law. He spent some time in an insane asylum, and he drank all the time.

But in the October Revolution, which took place while he was a prisoner of war in Russia, Hasek found something worth more than irony. He gave up drinking, joined the Bolshevik party, fought in the Red Army, and became secretary of the Committee of Foreign Communists in Ufa. He went back to the new Czech republic in 1920 to spend the last three years of his life doing articles for the left wing of the Czech Social Democratic party and writing The Good Soldier Svejk. Respectable people thought him disreputable, he couldn't find a steady job, and he went back to drinking. But a publisher impressed by the sales of the first volume of Svejk, which Hasek had to print and distribute himself, published the rest of the book, and it became popular immediately. Great times call for great men, and when the times are genuinely great even disreputable people like Hasek answer the call.