A series dedicated to literature in translation whether classic or contemporary.
Originally published in Czech as Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války (1921 – 1923).
Translated from the Czech by Cecil Parrott.
Original illustrations by Josef Lada
Published by Penguin Books in 1973.
The funniest novel about the First World War. With the latest adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s poignant classic All Quiet on the Western Front up for several Oscar nominations, The Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in the World War is its complete antithesis. Sprawling, bawdy, blasphemous, and funny as hell, Hašek’s comic vision is Rabelaisian in its hilarious critique of bureaucracy, warmongers, clerics, and stuffy-nosed superior officers. The eponymous Švejk joins the fight as the most loyal Czech in the Austrian Army. Before heading to the Front, he earns his living as a duplicitous dog-seller. Conning buyers into thinking mutts are purebreds, he makes a dishonest wage and then spends the rest of the time in the bars. When he joins up, he spends most of his time in the brig or driving his superior officers to the brink of insanity.
Published shortly after the Great War, it represents a fundamental ur-text of Czech literature. Translated from the Czech by Cecil Parrott, he explains the challenges such a text offers to the translator. “Švejk and many of the other characters in the book use what is called ‘obecná čeština’ or common Czech, which is not quite the same as literary or book Czech. […] This cannot be adequately rendered in English[.]” (emphasis Parrott’s). This is compounded by Švejk speaking a sort of double-speak. Parrott does a commendable job, echoing the spirit of the text without devolving into an artificial Cockney or low-class English argot. It is also exposes how literary translation isn’t an exact art, which isn’t to say it is inaccurate or unworthy. It is an art, not a science, although an understanding of the language, history, and culture is absolutely necessary, in addition to biographical information about its author. Beyond all these challenges and complications, there is no authorized edition of Švejk. The Penguin edition reproduces all the original illustrations by Josef Lada, but not Lada’s fabricated ending following Hašek’s untimely death. Described by Parrott as “primitive and populist,” Lada’s illustrations add an additional level of enjoyment to the reading experience. Švejk is depicted as a rotund smiling mensch, similar in physique to Curly from The Three Stooges.
In his journeys, Švejk serves as a batman (a British term for orderly) to a drunken priest and his long-suffering superior officer Lieutenant Lukáš. Throughout the novel, the good soldier never fails to provide an anecdote, history, or reminisce related to the conversation at hand. To take a modern parallel, Švejk is like Raymond Reddington from the TV series The Blacklist. Unlike the charismatic arms dealer, most around the orderly take him for an idiot.
The novel is a cornerstone in Czech literature, but also has become an antecedent to other comic novels. One sees Catch-22 in embryo, Švejk’s shenanigans akin to Yossarian’s futile protests against the absurdity of war. The novel’s acidic depiction of military bureaucracy will be seen again in Evelyn Waugh’s trilogy of the Second World War, Sword of Honour (1952 – 1961). The novel’s meandering hero and endless digressions bring to mind Thomas Pynchon’s V. (1963). Unlike Waugh’s Anglo-Catholic conservatism, Hašek’s personal and political anarchism gives the novel its antic energy and digressive charm.