Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Good Soldier Svejk - Jaroslav Hasek

One of the central character of many of the Sanskrit drama is the Vidushak. Usually subordinated and associated with the main hero, the king in most cases, vidushak provided the  social commentary and with his humorous dialogues, creates the much needed criticism of the King's actions which has the direct relevance to the society.  The Vidushak of the drama is the direct replica of the court room Vidushaks, of the Indian Kings. They had the authority and approval of the Noble, to ridicule and criticise the court, including him or judiciary decisions without earning the wrath of the emperor. Often behaved as a clown, with self depreciating humour they were the integral part of the court room, bringing the balance of the rule and the voices of the people.

Jaroslav Hasek's World War I satire to me reminded of this great traditions of Vidushak.  Good Soldier Svejk, stood for what a Vidushak would have done. By making himself as the center of ridicule, by his sense of obedience, his self accepted idiocy, his innocent looking but profound interpretations of the events, his ability to stand up to any negative repercussions in order to prove the triviality of the war and the plight of the people who are recruited as soldiers of the Royal Army as a 'subject' of the His highness who stays in a far off land. Like Svejk, most of the soldiers has no connection with the Lord whom they are fighting for and no enmity with  those they are fighting against.

"And so they've killed our Ferdinand"
"Which Ferdinand, Mrs Muller ?  I know two Ferdinants. One is a messenger at Prusa's the chemist's and once by mistake he drank a bottle of hair oil and the other is Ferdinand  Kokoska, who collect dog manure. Neither of them is any loss".
Originally a dog dealer ( usually stolen dogs), Svejk was recruited into the Austro-Hungarian Army to fight the enemy at the border. Like many Czech peasants he too was assigned to a regiment which was on move to the frontiers. Svejk had previous experience with the army where he served for a short duration, before being discarded for his 'idiocy' and his inability to comprehend. Giving nightmares to his superiors by his idiosyncrasies , yet always being at their side with his clever manipulations to protect them, taking the blame on himself, he spent his time as an orderly whenever he is out of the Gaol. Svejk entertain the readers through his ever ready anecdotes, from his acquaintances and colleagues, filling the pages of this giant book. These anecdotes, seldom has any connection with the main topic in discussion, frustrates his superiors. The exploits continue from one garrison to the next, from one gaol to the other, from one bogie of the train to the next. In the end, he gets arrested as a Russian spy, while attempting to wear the uniform of a Russian Soldier in the frontier line. Interestingly, for every trouble he get himself to , he comes up with his rational which is often difficult to argue against.   

Jaroslav Hasek, himself was a soldier during the WW I. The characterisation of Svejk is developed from his own personal experience of the service in the 91st Infantry Regiment of the Austro-Hungarian Army.. These experiences were published in the journals at various times, and have then been developed into a mega book. However, he did not live to complete the book as it ends abruptly before the real action or war begin. But, what he was expressing to convey is very clear in the pages that are left for us to savour. Hasek's life itself has been of a nomad and anarchic , which reflects in the theme and in Svejk.

"Great times call for great men", says Hasek in his preface. "I am very fond of good soldier Svejk and in relating his adventure during World War and I am convinced that this modest, anonymous hero will win sympathy of all of you"...."and that is enough".

The writing is hilarious and extremely funny and thus its a page turner, despite the mammoth size of the book. The illustrations of Josef Lada ( the original publication was with the illustrations of Lada) adds flavor to the character, and I am likely to remember Svejk as perceived and drawn by Lada. Probably one of the best anti-war novels ever written, inspiring a whole lot of writers ( Joseph Keller of Catch-22 said once that he could not have written Catch-22 if not for this epic novel). Its pretty obvious that this is an untranslatable book, with its local idioms and the use of large mix of languages. The translations of Cecil Parrot, was a great effort to bring out these nuances of the languages.  Brilliant book, and a character permanently etched in my memory.

"Heroes don't exist, only cattle for the slaughter and the butchers in the general staffs. But in the end every body will mutiny and there will be a fine shambles. Long live the army! Goodnight!”

The Good Soldier Svejk ( 1923 )

Jaroslav Hasek   ( translated from Czech by Cecil Parrott  in 1973)

Penguin Books

752 Pages
Wiki, Telegraph

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