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“The Good Soldier Švejk”

(The following is a post by Helen Fedor, Reference Specialist in the European Division.)

The most famous work by Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek (1883-1923), and probably the best known work of Czech literature, is “Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války” (The adventures of the good soldier Švejk during the world war), or as it is known in its English translation, “The Good Soldier Švejk.” The most translated Czech novel—read in some 60 languages—it satirizes bureaucracy, the military, and war.

Jaroslav Hašek. “Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války.” Prague: K. Synek, 1948-49. Illustration by Josef Lada. Švejk rubs ointment into his knee while the cleaning lady tells him of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand—an event that triggered World War I and brought about Švejk’s many adventures.

Set in Austria-Hungary, the book opens with the 1914 news that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria (1863-1914) has been assassinated in Sarajevo, an event that would trigger World War I. Josef Švejk, the antihero, enlists in the army and spends the war blundering from one ludicrous adventure to another. He seems earnest in his desire to carry out his orders, yet takes them to extremes and frustrates his superiors. For example, when Švejk is assigned to the barracks in České Budějovice (in southern Bohemia) as a prelude to going to the front, he manages to miss all the trains heading there. In his ‘zeal’ to reach the barracks and join the rest of his battalion, Švejk meanders all over southern Bohemia, vainly searching for České Budějovice, gets arrested as a suspected spy and deserter, and is escorted to the barracks.

Švejk bears more than a passing resemblance to the author, Hašek, who loved practical jokes, had a checkered career, and was himself drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army. Hašek’s pretended suicide attempt (by jumping off Charles Bridge into the Vltava River in Prague) ended with the police taking him to a mental institution. Also, during elections to the Austro-Hungarian parliament, Hašek ran for office as a member of his own newly founded Party of Moderate and Peaceful Progress Within the Limits of the Law. He eventually joined the anarchist movement and was arrested and imprisoned more than once.

Jaroslav Hašek, Karel Vaněk; illustrations Petr Urban. “Švejk za první světové války, v ruském zajetí a v revoluci” [Švejk during the first world war, in Russian captivity, and in the revolution]. Prague: XYZ, 2009. As Švejk and 40 other captive soldiers are being transported eastward across Russia, his train pulls out of a village station without him, and despite his pursuit, strands him there. The illustration shows Švejk running after the train.

Jaroslav Hašek. “Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války.” Prague: K. Synek, 1948-49. Illustration by Josef Lada. Two soldiers escorted Švejk to the home of the chaplain for “spiritual consolation” before his hanging. By the time Švejk and his escorts got there, the soldiers were drunk, and Švejk ended up guarding them while the chaplain (himself drunk) unsuccessfully tried to telephone the barracks, mistaking a coat rack for his nonexistent telephone.

Hašek planned to write the Švejk story in six parts. The first three were published 1921-23, but Hašek died in 1923, while working on part four. After his death, his publisher asked journalist and humorist Karel Vaněk to complete the work. Vaněk finished part four and later also wrote about Švejk’s adventures in Russian captivity and during the Russian Revolution.

The most famous illustrator of Švejk’s adventures was Josef Lada. His classic illustrations are instantly recognizable and have come to define Švejk, even though Hašek apparently never saw Lada’s drawings. A more recent illustrator is the delightful Petr Urban whose artwork is shown here.

Two other sequels to the Švejk story were set in the Nazi-controlled Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (1939-45); both were written in the 1940s by anonymous authors. The first was the English-language “Švejk in the Protectorate,” published in London, 1942, by the exile publishing house The Czechoslovak. This small booklet begins with an account of the 1939 assassination attempt on Hitler: “So they’ve nearly killed our Adolf…,” echoing the opening words of Hašek’s novel. The preface of this work describes it as “a cruel and bitter satire where laughter is mingled with the fighting spirit of revenge and hatred.”

“S̆vejk in the Protectorate,” London: “The Czechoslovak,” 1942.

Medius (pseud.). “Loyální občan Josef Švejk v protektorátě Čechy a Morava.” Prague: K. Synek, 1948.

The other work, “Loyální občan Josef Švejk v protektoráte Čechy a Morava” (Loyal citizen Josef Švejk in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia), was published in Prague by the unknown ‘Medius,’ in 1948. Only part one of this work was ever issued. The Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was established on March 16, 1939, after Germany had occupied Czechoslovakia. Germany had already annexed the Sudetenland, composed of territory in the northern, southern, and western parts of the Czech Lands (Bohemia and Moravia), in October 1938; an independent Slovak Republic had been established on March 14, 1939.

The first English translation of Švejk was published by Paul Selver in 1930, but it was an abridged version that reduced the book to less than two-thirds of the original. Perhaps the best known English-language translation of Hašek’s book is  by Cecil Parrott, originally published in 1973. His translation used Lada’s original drawings, and included maps showing Švejk’s travels.

“The Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in the World War,” Cecil Parrott (trans.). London: Heinemann, 1973.

The very first translation of Hašek’s book however, was into German, by Grete Reiner, in 1926. “Die Abenteuer des braven Soldaten Schwejk während des Weltkrieges” (The adventures of the good soldier Švejk during the world war) was published in Prague, which had a large German-speaking population.

Ms. Reiner, a native of Prague who was later killed at Auschwitz, was the executive editor of the anti-fascist magazine, “Deutsche Volkszeitung,” (German’s people daily ), and was largely responsible for spreading Švejk’s fame throughout Europe. Her translation, burned by the Nazis in 1933, was said to be one of playwright Bertolt Brecht’s favorite books. In 1927, Brecht himself wrote a stage adaptation based on the first three parts of the Švejk story. The songs for this production were written by Hanns Eisler, an Austrian who later composed the national anthem of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

“Die Abenteuer des braven Soldaten Schwejk während des Weltrieges.” Transl. Grete Reiner, Illus. Josef Lada. Prague: A. Synek, 1926.

“Schweyk im zweiten Weltkrieg.” (Svejk in the second world war) Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1962, c1957.

Since then, Švejk has inspired further plays, films, comic books, several restaurants (in Prague, throughout the Czech Republic, and abroad), statues, an opera, TV adaptations, a BBC radio broadcast, an animated film, and books such as Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” No doubt Švejk will continue to inspire future generations.

One Comment

  1. Gordon Anderson
    March 15, 2018 at 1:36 pm

    The restaurant U Kalicha [At the Chalice] figures in to Svejk’s adventures and is alive and well in Prague. Their website gives interesting background to the real characters in the first section of the saga.

    “Kalich” is translated as “goblet”, but I believe that Chalice is the more accurate word, referring to the Hussites’ emphasis on receiving the chalice (wine) as well as the host in communion.

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