Švejk as witness to barbarity
The garrulous Josef Švejk is Hašek’s device to observe and lampoon the disastrous, corrupt, horribly inefficient and pointlessly cruel army of the Austro-Hungarian empire in the Great War (1914-1918). Švejk’s affable placidity in even the most extreme circumstances makes him an uncritical witness but an object of events rather than their active subject. He is sometimes amusing but also appalling with his endless stream of anecdotes about stupid and brutal acts he claims to have witnessed or heard about, whether in the army or civilian life. But regardless of the stupid brutality he personally endures, he remains always the same, in any situation, with no complexity or character development whatever. As one of his regimental comrades remarks when Švejk reappears after numerous mishaps, including being mistaken for an escaped Russian prisoner and nearly executed,
‘You haven’t changed at all,’ the volunteer said to him.
‘I haven’t,’ answered Švejk. ‘I haven’t had the time to. They even wanted to shoot me, but that was not the worst. I’ve not had any pay since the twelfth.’ (p. 733)
The other caricatures — the insatiable gourmand Baloun, the ridiculously nasty and tyrannical Lieutenant Dub, and others — become tiresomely repetitious in this long, long stream (752 pages) of satire.
Besides the rampant stealing by officers and common soldiers whenever they have the opportunity, their casual abuse of civilians (by rape, robbery, or simply beating — especially of Jews or Ruthenians), the most striking aspects are the mistrust, competition and even open and violent clashes among the army’s diverse nationalities. Soldiers from Czech regiments beat up Hungarian soldiers for sport, and the Hungarians reciprocate, sometimes mortally; besides these two ethnicities, Poles, Ruthenians, Slovaks, Gypsies and others barely understand their German-speaking Austrian officers, who consider themselves far superior. But those German-speaking Austrians resent terribly the haughtiness and better food and conditions of the troops of that supposed brother-empire, the “Reich Germans.”
Hašek may have exaggerated all this for laughs, but probably not by much — he had lived through scenes like these; his own career, military and journalistic, is far more interesting than Švejk’s, because unlike Švejk, he was a permanent rebel and prankster, an anarchist who became a Communist, always seeking the best way to upset the system. His unfinished, rambling book goes on long after it has made its points, and would surely have gone on far longer if Hašek had not died while dictating it in January 1923 — it stops abruptly, on the verge of nothing in particular. And yet it has been widely read and translated, and is still rewarding. The book’s value includes its ground-level look at the absurdities and cruelties of that senseless war, and its stunning passages of bitter irony, such as this, during one of the many displacements of regiments by rail:
« Before the arrival of the passenger train the third-class restaurant filled up with soldiers and civilians. They were predominantly soldiers of various regiments and formations and the most diverse nationalities whom the whirlwinds of war had swept into the Tábor hospitals. They were now going back to the front to get new wounds, mutilations and pains and to earn the reward of a simple wooden cross over their graves. Years after on the mournful plains of East Galicia a faded Austrian soldier’s cap with a rusty Imperial badge would flutter over it in wind and rain. From time to time a miserable old carrion crow would perch on it, recalling fat feasts of bygone days when there used to be spread for him an unending table of human corpses and horse carcasses, when just under the cap on which he perched there lay the daintiest morsels of all — human eyes. »