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Friday, 10 January 2020 15:57

The Good Soldier Svejk: or How to Stay Sane in an Insane World

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The Good Soldier Svejk: or How to Stay Sane in an Insane World
by Josef Lada
Chris Guiton discusses Jaroslav Hašek’s comic masterpiece, The Good Soldier Švejk and his Fortunes in the World War, as tensions rise again in the Middle East

Albert Camus once remarked, “It is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.” The latest round of violence in the Middle East should give us all pause for thought.  As Lindsey German of the Stop the War Coalition said earlier this week, “The US has to accept that it can’t go around illegally killing generals.”

The situation has de-escalated in recent days. Iran’s response to last week’s assassination of Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani was calibrated to satisfy honour while avoiding action that would automatically trigger another round of violence. But war remains a possibility in a situation that remains extremely volatile.

In situations like this, ordinary people often feel powerless. Sure, there are things you can do. Going to anti-war demonstrations, signing online petitions and writing to your MP amongst them.

But we are living in a world dominated by narcissistic sociopaths, who are deaf to reason. Who subscribe to the view that, as Bertolt Brecht put it, “What they could do with 'round here is a good war. What else can you expect with peace running wild all over the place? You know what the trouble with peace is? No organisation.”

Wars are easy to start but hard to stop. And sometimes you need to take solace elsewhere. I find dusting off a copy of Jaroslav Hašek’s comic masterpiece, “The Good Soldier Švejk and his Fortunes in the World War”, offers some relief.

Published in 1923, it’s an achingly funny anti-war novel which satirises the absurdity of war, stifling military bureaucracy and the pretensions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The story begins in the wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914, the trigger for World War One. The episodic plot continues through a series of stories revolving around Švejk’s encounters with a stream of policemen, judges, doctors and army officers as he’s sent to an insane asylum, drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army and experiences a series of adventures on the Eastern Front.  

The weaknesses of officialdom are repeatedly unveiled through Švejk’s enthusiasm for obeying orders, no matter how ridiculous. An apparently hapless figure, his feigned incompetence is subversive. Švejk is a survivor and his seemingly endless good humour provides an unbreakable defence against a hostile bureaucracy. 

Hašek's ironic comment about Švejk sums up the significance of his character:

Great times call for great men. There are unknown heroes who are modest, with none of the historical glamour of a Napoleon. If you analysed their character you would find that it eclipsed even the glory of Alexander the Great. Today you can meet in the streets of Prague a shabbily dressed man who is not even himself aware of his significance in the history of the great new era. He goes modestly on his way, without bothering anyone. Nor is he bothered by journalists asking for an interview. If you asked him his name he would answer you simply and unassumingly: 'I am Švejk….'

The subversive power of the novel remains instructive. We live in an increasingly post-truth world where populist politicians practice deceit on an industrial scale, aided by a mainstream media unwilling or incapable of challenging them. In such a world, Švejk’s refusal to be duped or silenced is as relevant as ever.

There’s even a dedicated group of enthusiasts, called Švejkologists, who continue to study this black satire. In these disturbing times, it’s important to find ways of challenging official narratives. As Edwin Starr put it in “War”:

War, huh

What is it good for

Absolutely nothing listen to me

It ain't nothing but a heart breaker

(War) it's got one friend that's the undertaker. 

See the Wealden Wordsmith for more pieces on the political power of literature, music and art.

Read 1923 times Last modified on Monday, 13 January 2020 11:48