The Slav v. The Slave:
A Comparison of Subversive Narrative Strategies
Aesop and Good Soldier Svejk: Two Literal Fools Speak Truth to Power
Excerpt: "Are lowly people as intelligent, complex, sensitive, integral, as the elite (i.e., those likely to be writing literary criticism)? Are they intelligent in the same way as the elite? Not with a different, craven, animal kind of intelligence such as the tricky slaves revealed in the first scene of Aesop or the kind the Austrian denouncing Svejk quoted above spoke of a swinish,"foxy" intelligence but are they intelligent in the same way that the elite are? And, if they are how scary! That they might be troubled by being pawns, canon fodder, impoverished. That they might have cultures, systems of signification, languages, complex world views, of their own, completely esoteric to the elite. That they might be talking right in front of their betters, and those betters might not understand! That they might be covertly subverting the pressure their superiors exert for them to carry out their wishes! Might they have some kind of ability to withstand elite efforts to buy or sell their hearts and minds and annihilate their bodies? Those are revolutionary ideas, no matter whether the elite is imperialist, fascist, communist, or the fictional ones of Orwell or Kafka."
This paper will compare the subversiveness of the narrative strategies depicted in two novels: The Life of Aesop as it appears in Aesop without Morals, and The Good Soldier Svejk and His Fortunes in the World War by Jaroslav Hasek. Both Aesop, an ancient Greek slave, and Svejk, a Czech soldier in the Austro-Hungarian Army, are relatively powerless men who confront more powerful others with their storytelling and literal fool behavior. Before comparing the two, I will review the plots of, and significant critical approaches to, each.
A Brief Review of Aesop without Morals
There may have been many versions of the life of Aesop; this paper will deal with the one which appears in Aesop without Morals translation by Daly. This biography of Aesop begins with Aesop as a deaf and dumb slave. He is helpful to a priestess of Isis, and is granted speech. He reveals a great, dangerous intelligence, and is sold. His new master is Xanthus, a renowned philosopher. In a series of episodes, Aesop proves that his wit is greater than his master's. This wins him his freedom. He becomes a widely traveled professional speaker and thinker. He speaks sharply to the wrong people, however, and they plant false evidence in his luggage. Aesop is condemned to death, and dies telling stories (Daly). Did any of this really ever happen? Baker, for one, argues that there must be some factual substance behind the "tomfoolery" of the Aesop biography as we know it (Baker 562).
Daly writes that there is evidence that some features of the biography he presents were known as early as the fifth century BC. (Daly 21). The version he presents was probably set down "by a Greek speaking Egyptian in Egypt, probably in the first century after Christ." He says it was put together of "ready made material." He gives the author/compiler scant credit as a literary artist (Daly 22). He faults the author for his artless composition, obviously out of place ecphrasis, and uneven narrative style (Daly 22). Holzberg reports that scholars have dismissed the composition of the piece, calling it "slipshod patchwork" and a series of anecdotes sewn together (Holzberg 5,6). Holzberg once held that position himself, but later argued for its tight, conscious, and artistic construction, a construction reflective of Aesop's rises and falls in status and effectiveness as a story teller (Holzberg).
It goes without saying that Aesop is associated with fables, and that fables do appear in this version of his biography. Daly tells us that these fables, "whatever their content...serve as examples, usually horrible, of human behavior" (Daly 17). Fables were simple and direct, yet free from colloquialism (Daly 25). Baker says Aesop was part of a "gossipy, witty, ironical" tradition (Baker 568). Goins says that the biographer of Aesop "enjoyed treating the concerns of humble men with the words and humor they could appreciate. He used a deceptively simple cleverness to demonstrate the arrogance of the intellectually pretentious" (Goins 30). Fable style showed an elegant economy. A fable that has come down to us in the expression, "goose that laid the golden eggs," can be reduced to three sentences (Daly 18). Stock characters with readily identifiable attributes: faithful dogs and timid deer, for example (Daly 19) no doubt helped keep fables streamlined. In spite of their simplicity, they had status. Several authors described how Socrates, in his final days, choose to versify fables, thanks to the inspiration of a dream adjuring him to attend to music (Daly 13, inter alia).
Fables, Daly tells us, were used to make a point or support an argument (Daly 14). Why resort to tales of talking animals to do so? Baker cites an ancient source to refer to the power relations of fabling, which involved "'Pulling down the high, and raising the low'" (Baker 568). Compton says bluntly that Aesop "used the fable for blame" (Compton 335). Fables, as Baker tells us, "seduce the mind"(Baker 558); in so doing, they allow in information it might be problematical to speak plainly. The Life of Aesop explicitly illustrates this principle in action. Aesop is asked to give advice that may make him a powerful enemy. Rather than speak his mind plainly, he resorts to a fable (Daly 76). Patterson writes:
"the fable had from its origins functioned as a self protective mode of communication, whether by a slave addressing the Master society, or by an aristocrat whose political party is currently in defeat. As L'estrange saw it from the latter position, 'Change of Times and Humours, calls for new Measures and Manners; and what cannot be done by the Dint of Authority, or Perswasion, in the Chappel, or the Closet, must be brought about by the Side-Wind of a Lecture from the Fields and the Forest'" (Patterson 5).
In fact, Patterson sees fables and the Aesop biography and Aesop's fables as subversive, and gives five reasons why they are so:
1. literature, in its most basic form, has always spoken to unequal power relations;
2. those without power in those relations, if they wish to comment upon them, must encode their commentary;
3.) writing is authorized by authorship, texts needing a name to cling to if they are to acquire cultural resonance;
4.) wit (literary ingenuity) can emancipate;
5.) basic issues require basic metaphors; when, as in the fable, the role of metaphor is to mediate between human consciousness and human survival, the mind recognizes rock bottom, the irreducibly material, by rejoining the animals, one of whom is the human body (Patterson 15).
Patterson argues that the typically Aesopian use of fables as a political weapon lost in popularity with the approach of democracy (Patterson 17-18).
The biography tells us of another protection Aesop had: his appearance. He was "dwarfish with a swarthy skin, a potbelly, a pointed head, a snub nose, bandy legs, short arms, squint eyes, etc." (Daly 19). He is referred to as a piece of garbage; it is questioned whether he is a turnip or a man (Daly 37). Aesop's status as an ugly slave may, like his speaking the truth through fables, serve to protect him. Baker, in recounting the plot of a play, says: "if you crush (a dung beetle) you're defiled" (Baker 589).
Aesop expressed hostility against his master, and perhaps frustration at his own undeservedly lowly station in life, in literal fool behavior. Literal fool behavior involves following a superior's orders exactly, with the result that the superior's desires are not satisfied. For example, when Xanthus asks for an oil flask, Aesop gives him one an empty one. The master had not requested oil but a flask.. The biography recounts at least five back-to-back literal fool encounters involving the oil flask, lentils, beverages, foot-baths, and food fed to a dog (Daly 51-54). When Aesop annoys his master in these and other encounters, his master repeatedly indicates that he is waiting for an excuse to beat Aesop (Daly 52-53).
Other bits in the life: what at least two authors have identified as misogynist episodes (Adrados 95; Patterson 26). Aesop is caught masturbating by his master's wife. She demands sex in exchange for a coat. After the sexual encounter, it is later referred to in front of the cuckolded master through double entendres which the master does not understand (Daly 67-68). Aesop later humiliates this same woman by exposing her private parts to a group of men (Daly 69), an episode which became fodder for pornographic prints (Patterson 28). An episode from the Ahikar story is inserted into the biography (Daly 78-81). Eventually Aesop is sentenced to death; before he dies he resorts to frantic, apparently compulsive story-telling (Daly 90; Patterson 31). Aesop is witless in his own cause (Daly 87).
The Aesop biography was written long ago and far away; given that, scholars have engaged in much theorizing about exactly who wrote it, for whom, how to appropriately classify it, and what it all means. Scholars cannot turn to contemporaneous sources for unquestionably factual answers to any of these questions.
Goins considers the work to have been inspired by or similar to Old Comedy, and argues against those who place it as more similar to New Comedy (Goins). This biography of Aesop does contain prurient and scatological episodes. In this, Goins says, the work is like that of Aristophanes.
Baker compared Aesop to Prometheus (Baker 583). Anton Weichers decided that Aesop was a pharmakos, as did Adrados (94). In addition to being a "real sage" and an anti-hero, (Adrados 95, 102) Aesop is like a fertility god who has "more power than anyone else", suffers "an unjust death that has to be expiated", is the god of the spent yearly cycle, who "assures food and sexual life" who just happened to also tell fables (Adrados 103, 107, 108, 110, 111). Adrados' argument is weakened because he connects the telling of fables with his sacrificed fertility god without giving the god any organic reason to resort to fables. Baker argues against Adrados' theory (572-574).
Adrados puts Aesop in the same category with Archilochus, Hipponax, and Homer because of the following similarities: they earn their living through verbal art; they attack those higher than themselves with verbal art forms; they are ugly and full of eroticism; they "laugh at traditional morals"; they speak of their own suffering and end up triumphant; they are protected by the Muses.
Compton places Aesop in the company of Archilocus, Homer, and Socrates, and classifies all four as poets. He remarks that Socrates is "assimilated" to Aesop by Plato (Compton 341). Like Socrates, Aesop was a gadfly (Compton 339), like Homer, a wanderer (Compton 337).
Efforts to categorize Aesop in less ancient genres have compared his literal fool episodes to Till Eulenspiegel (Holzberg 4,8); Holzberg and Adrados argue for the text's influence on development of the picaresque novel (Holzberg 2; Adrados). Adrados says: "Aesop is presented to us as he journeys from place to place, accompanied by a series of adventures full of risks (Adrados 94). Patterson has devoted a book to Aesopian writing and political history in England.
A Brief Review of Jaroslav Hasek and
The Good Soldier Svejk
The Good Soldier Svejk and His Fortunes in the World War was written thousands of years after Aesop's story was composed, in a land far from Greece or Egypt, and I have found no indication that its author was aware of the Aesop biography. Why compare these two literary works? Placing art in its proper context aids in understanding. Aesop and Svejk may indeed be in proper context when placed next to each other. In the following review ofThe Good Soldier Svejk, I will attempt to show important similarities between the two works. These similarities, I believe, are generic enough that comparing the two works will add to insight about both of them.
Jaroslav Hasek (1883-1923), author of Svejk, was the descendant of simple Czech farmers. His father was a school teacher who died young of alcoholism. After the death, Hasek, who had previously been a star student, began to fail in school. As a child, he attended political demonstrations and harassed the Germanic military colonizing the Czech lands (Parrott 1-2).
He tried work but "one day he simply did not turn up for work; he was sick of conditions in the bank and just ran off to the Balkans to join the Macedonian rebels" (Pytlik a, 13). When he returned, as a favor, he was given a job editing a journal about animals. Things were going fine until he began to write articles about animals he made up and to run ads for pedigreed werewolves (Parrott 8).
Hasek married, twice. He fought hard to win his first, Czech wife; he left her when she gave birth to their child; she was alive and still married to him when he arrived from Russia with a second wife, whom he neglected. At least one scholar says that he was an active homosexual (Chalupecky 141). It has been argued that the only developing relationship in the book is the somewhat fond one between Svejk and Lukas, a manservant and his handsome master (Stern 200). However there is a negative reference to a gay officer on page 727. In any case, Hasek was known to bathe in public fountains while wearing women's clothing (Pytlik a 28).
He was politically active in the anarchist, monarchist, nationalist, and internationalist communist movements. He was "'one of the best commissars of the revolution in Siberia'" (Pytlik b, 104). "'Comrade Gasek (sic) is one of the best people we have in Asian Russia'" Ivan Olbracht was told. "Everyone sang his praises and told stories of his heroism in battle, his wisdom, his abilities as an organizer, his marvelous industry" (Chalupecky 139). Hasek was an active alcoholic who would eventually drink at least one tavern completely out of business (Pytlik b, 125-128); he paid for his drinks with charm and stories rather than money. Drink would contribute to his death by age 40. While a commissar in Russia he was sober for three years.
Hasek also made his mark in a contrary movement, that of Czech nationalism. An acquaintance remarked on his unique fervor:
It was the first public speech I had heard on the struggle against Austria-Hungary for Czechoslovak national independence which was not broken up by the police. And I couldn't help marveling at the irony of fate in putting it into the mouth of Hasek, of all people...He delivered this speech with unaffected solemnity. It contained all the stock historical references from the Battle of White Mountain onwards, and like all such recruiting addresses was designed to appeal to patriotic feelings...But in contrast to most such speeches, his did not sound like a tirade or a schoolmaster's lecture. He observed the required moderation and controlled himself so as not to be guilty of what he once used to parody in others. Moreover, he seemed to have unlearned all the tricks by which he had tried to beguile his listeners in the old days; there were no little jokes, no clowning, no covert grins...Altogether it was an entirely different Hasek from the one I had known. He, who had always been against militarism and patriotism, in fact always against something, was now for the first time speaking for something. And this something was nothing less than honest and consistent patriotism, the volunteer army and the fight for national independence (Parrott 58).
Too, Hasek invented his own political party: The Party of Moderate Progress Within the Limits of the Law. He served on and attended meetings of the Executive Committee of this party, and wrote its history. The party was a spoof of conservative political action under the Austro-Hungarian empire (Pytlik b 26-27). Perhaps Hasek's checkered political career can be seen as of a piece when viewed through his Russian wife's typification of him as a man who was a champion of the weak. It was this tendency, she said, that made him leave Russia:
"He always sided with the weak, and the powerful didn't like it, so he sometimes had problems. Materials were secretly assembled against him, Jaroslavchik found out about it, and wanted to leave. He didn't want to face a military tribunal. It was a legal escape" (Chalupecky 144).
I don't know if the parallels between the Aesop biography and The Good Soldier Svejk mean that one can gain insight into the invisible Aesop author through accounts of the notorious author of Svejk, but the parallel between Alexandra Lvova's account above and the final episode of the Aesop biography is obvious.
On four separate occasions newspapers printed Hasek's obituary, mistakenly declaring him dead; one obituary was "libelous" (6). In spite of his alcoholism, early death, and wanderings, approximately 1,500 short articles, stories, and feuilletons are attributed to Hasek. The exact number is uncertain because he used many pseudonyms (Pytlik 9).
Hasek declared contempt for formal literature and literary circles (Parrott 196). "He declared with self-irony that he wrote only for money," says Pytlik (a 22), but in fact he also wrote for beer, sausage, and pickled onions (Pytlik b, 125-128). Josef Kodicek described a system used to get Hasek to write at the Prague weekly Tribuna:
"I myself induced [Hasek] to write two volumes of stories, by the simple device of withholding payment until he had written them down in my presence. He would sit down at my desk, and, without a pause, and mostly without a single correction, write each story in the neatest of scripts with extreme rapidity" (Stern 198-199).
Parrott cites an anecdote from Alexandra Lvova on Hasek's technique to argue against any idea of Hasek's having any notion of the form he used in Svejk:.
'What are you going to write?' I asked, while he was getting ready to dictate to me.
'Something eight pages long!'
That was his whole program of work. A subject obediently presented itself, whenever he called for it. He kept strictly to his program and on page eight I had to put the full stop.
'Write another page," I begged sometimes.
'No, let's kill the hero at the third line from the end.' (Parrott 145).
Chalupecky argues instead that Hasek did have a structure before he began but that the structure was inside his head (147). Further, Chalupecky quotes friends of Hasek's who let us know that Hasek didn't only write for beer, money, or sausage, and that one of his ways of earning literary rewards also affected his composition and style:
Hasek saw that this [Svejk] would be his crowning work and therefore he worked at it with immense seriousness. There was not a single chapter or episode that he had not told before, not in the company of refined literati or among his jealous literary friends, but in the bars among house-painters, bricklayers, carpenters, thieves, and prostitutes. And his tiny eyes would dart from worker to worker, observing the effect his tale was having. Next day, he would tell the same story somewhere else, in different circumstances. Then he would carefully choose the best version, according to its impact (Sauer and Suk, quoted in Chalupecky 150).
Hasek's tramps were epic, taking him across the Hapsburg empire. The people he met inspired his characterizations, according to Pytlik:
In the simple, ordinary life of the country folk Hungarian herdsmen, Slovak shepherds from the Tatras and humiliated gypsies he discovered latent characteristics which looked superficially like simple-mindedness or even stupidity, but were really tokens of human individuality and unspoiled human nature. And the impulsive products of that special 'subliminal' intelligence of the simple man played an important part in conflicts with the ruling class: for they revealed the hypocrisy and dissimulation, but also the pettiness and intellectual feebleness of the educated classes. The contrast between plebeian artfulness and roguery on the one hand and the silly ceremoniousness and pomposity of those in authority on the other was so striking that it became the source for the humorous plots of many of Hasek's sketches and travel anecdotes.
Hasek assessed himself humbly. In reference to praise from the critic Ivan Olbracht, Hasek said, "'Olbracht has got it wrong. I'm not an idiot of genius. I'm just an ordinary idiot'" (Parrott 167). On another occasion he paraphrased one of his obituaries and said, in answer to the question, "'What were you, really?'" "'I was a drunkard with chubby hands'" (Chalupecky 146).
The Good Soldier Svejk , published serially in the early 1920's, is a long book: 752 pages. In it, Josef Svejk, an unmarried seller of phony pedigreed dogs, is drafted into the Austrian army after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Hasek is stinting with any physical description of Svejk, yet an image of him is burned into the reader's mind by Joseph Lada's illustrations, versions of which Hasek approved before he died, and which have accompanied the book from the beginning. In these drawings, Svejk is not shown as either young or attractive. He is rumpled, moon faced, with protruding ears and a blissfully blank expression, in line with Hasek's description, and rather fat, while Hasek described Svejk as "stocky." At one point another character refers to Svejk as a "bloated sea cow" and a Thai "elephant" (Stern 205), which might indicate that Hasek meant him to be fat.
Svejk is assigned as batboy to a chaplain and then to an Lieutenant Lukas. He does not carry out any order he is given successfully. His superiors often punish him, and threaten him with even worse punishments than those he endures. Sometimes they merely savor the contemplation of punishing him (Hasek 208). In his own defense, he declares himself to be an idiot. He admits that his efforts to do good always result in disaster (Hasek 172). He claims he is attempting to follow orders exactly; there are a few literal fool episodes and misunderstandings due to puns (Hasek 322, 423, and 485). For example, here's Svejk taking a message:
"Stupid mutt. Well, here you are, here's the signature: Colonel Schroder, bastard. Have you got that? Repeat that!"
"Colonel Schroder, bastard."
"Good, you bloody mule" (Hasek 423).
And Svejk being interrogated:
"And what kind of agitation are you up to?"
"Humbly report, sir," Svejk replied with dignified calm, "I'm not up to a 'gitation' of any kind."
Behind the cadet several soldiers burst out laughing (Hasek 485).
Svejk resorts, at every turn, to telling stories that somehow bear on the situation at hand. Too, Svejk projects a beatific, almost supernatural or angelic tenderness, compassion, and bliss, that repeatedly blunts or deflates the hostility of those who wish to hurt him. Svejk's adventures include his being asked to move furniture for his boss', Lieutenant Lukas', mistress. While watching him, she becomes aroused and demands sex. He dutifully obliges; later Svejk embarrasses this same woman by exposing her affair with his boss to her husband. Double entendres are made in front of both her husband and Lukas, which refer to Svejk's sexual encounter with her. Neither Lukas nor the husband understand the full import of these comments. Svejk cannot be characterized as a uniformly misogynist work; one of the most positive characters in the book is an old peasant woman who helps Svejk during his journeys (Hasek 242-243). As when Aesop criticizes his master for public urination, Svejk criticizes his social better for public spitting (Hasek 145). As with the Aesop biography, the book contains obviously foreign insertions. Hasek quotes communiqués from the Hapsburgs to comic effect. Too, frequently in the text, characters break out into song, some of them quite bawdy, and a few stanzas of authentic folksong text are given. Again, like Aesop, Svejk is posed with folk conundrums to test his intellectual mettle. His answers are the answers of a wise fool (Hasek 28-29); ultimately, he poses his interlocutors with a folk joking riddle. The outcome of this exam is different than in Aesop; Svejk is declared, not a "teacher," but an imbecile (Hasek 30).
The plot is paratactic rather than teleological, adding the adventures of one journey after another. It is impossible to say how the book would have ended, since Hasek died during its production; however, Hasek did, in his author's preface, write of Svejk after the projected end of the book. He was still the same old Svejk, still apparently clueless, shabby, and living in Prague (Hasek, preface, unnumbered page).
As the reader no doubt knows, the Slavs of eastern Europe were colonized by hostile powers Turks, Russians, Germans for hundreds of years. The Czechs fell under the Austrian empire (Parrott 22-56). Apparently the crimes committed by the Nazis were not all that new; in reading Svejk one sees parallels between the kind of tortures and insults the Austrian military submits the Czechs and other Slavs under their rule to and the crimes of concentration camps. For example, men are tortured via stomach pumps, enemas, and commands to jump into mud puddles. In one particularly eerie scene, Jews struggle to communicate the presence of smoke from burning villages to the authorities: "Groups of Jews with hanging curls and in long caftans pointed to the smoke clouds in the west and gesticulated with their hands" (Hasek 724).
Hasek can be quite graphic and unflinching in his descriptions Austria's oppressive rule and the horrors of war. This veteran's descriptions of battle scenes could be detailed, grim, and from a unique angle all his own:
Everywhere little heaps of human excrement of international extraction, belonging to all people of Austria, Germany, and Russia. The excrement of soldiers of all nationalities and confessions lay side by side or heaped on top of one another without quarreling among themselves (Hasek 598).
Hasek did not shrink from attempting to wring humor from the most sacred of topics; in one scene soldiers whose bodies have been torn apart by the war must march to heaven with their body parts in their rucksacks. An army officer is described as having photos on his wall that catalogue Austria's treatment of her subjects.
They were photographs of various executions carried out by the army in Galicia and Serbia. They were artistic photographs of charred cottages and trees with branches sagging under the weight of bodies strung up on them. Particularly fine was a photograph from Serbia of a whole family strung up a small boy and his father and mother. Two soldiers with bayonets were guarding the tree, and an officer stood victoriously in the foreground smoking a cigarette. On the other side in the background a field kitchen could be seen in full operation (Hasek 93).
The reader might conclude from this that Svejk's world had something in common with at least one tale from Aesop's time, in which soldiers guard crucified bodies. One should not conclude that Svejk is narrow Czech propaganda. As Parrott has pointed out, both the most likable and the most detestable characters in the multi-national cast of characters are Czech.
In short, Svejk's political world did have similarities with Aesop's. Svejk lived in an era of warring multi-national monarchs and empires. Serfdom had only been abolished in Austria in 1848; in Russia, in the 1860's. Svejk was not a slave, but he was not free, either.
At this point the attentive reader can see that there are important similarities between Svejk and Aesop. Both tell the story of a member of an oppressed ethnic minority in a world where his people do not rule. Both men have limited freedom. Both serve the kinds of men who, in a more conventional novel, would be the heroes: Xanthus, the famed, paramount philosopher; Lukas, the dashing young war hero. Both are single. Neither is young or handsome. They have very similar encounters with their master's women. Neither's story includes an account of the kind of love affair that might be found in a more conventional novel. Their stories are told in episodic narratives that use the journey as a plot device. Both Svejk and Aesop frustrate their masters' desires by engaging in literal fool behavior. Both tell stories at moments of crisis. Both have gone on to become larger than life heroes, their very names associated with ideas and trends larger than themselves. Critics cited above have classified Aesop as popular reading; Stern says the same of Svejk. It is, he says,
the only genuine popular creation of modern European literature; popular in the sense of immediately appealing to unliterary and relatively unsophisticated readers; popular in the sense of being modeled on them; and popular in the sense of being the product of an unliterary, naive creative imagination (Stern 204).
There are of course, important differences between the two characters and their "biographies", and those will be discussed after a brief review of the reception of Svejk.
Critics on the Character of Svejk
In a word: Svejk and Svejk made a big splash in both popular and critical circles. Svejk has become a household word in Czechoslovakia. Svejk and Svejk grabbed the imaginations of some of the most powerful and creative minds of this century. And there is no consensus on Svejk or Svejk; in fact, critical reactions are notable for extremes and contraries. Max Brod and critics in Germany championed it when Czechs were embarrassed by it; the Nazis burned it. Czech critics break frame in otherwise scholarly articles to apologize for it; to recommend more "manly" Czech war writing as a corrective; and/or to warn readers, especially children, away from it (Skvor 162; Novak 289; Parrott 182). Like a folk hero, Svejk, standing for whatever it is that the re-teller feels he stands for, has been placed in new fictional and real life contexts to see how he and his ideals perform. Bertolt Brecht placed him on the same stage with Hitler and had him struggle with Nazism. Brecht was so invested in his characterization of Svejk that he broke with a friend over his dramatic treatment (Parrott 178-179). Political thinkers have also wondered how Svejk and "Svejkery" would work under Big Brother (Orange) or the oppressive conditions of The Trial (Kosik 127; Stern 202). Those who place Svejk in real or imagined oppressive states often forget one quality of his that Parrott points out: his ingenuity (124). I'm sure Svejk would have altered his style to survive under Nazism or Big Brother. Svejk and Svejk must mean something, something really big, but there is no critical consensus as to what that something is.
Theories tend to revolve around whether or not Svejk is truly stupid. Unlike Aesop, who obviously knows what he is doing when he plays the literal fool, Svejk announces himself to be an idiot and is declared one by the state. Probably very intelligent critics can't get together on this one key question, or the attendant ones: is he a nationalist; is his method of subversion universally applicable; is he real or a caricature; is he increasing or decreasing his own and/or others' chances for freedom and dignity?
Snyder reads Svejk as "action" rather than as a character; Svejk is the result of his words. He makes the contrary assertion that Svejk is both human being and caricature; Max Brod seems to have felt something similar (Snyder 292; Parrott 166). Svejk's idiocy is a commentary on everything the Austrians do (Snyder 292). Chalupecky says something similar: "Svejk is talk, not a character in a novel. Svejk is storytelling personified" (147). Kosik argues instead that Svejk, in his "great breadth", is more human than most novel heroes; Svejk is opposed to "the great mechanism". Stern also says that Svejk represents the individual against the mass (214, 215). What Svejk shows the world is merely a mask (Kosik 133-135). Kovach also calls Svejk a mask (260). Johannes Becher called him a mirror (Pytlik a 109). Laco Novomesky called him a microscope; Pytlik, a puppet (Pytlik a, 122; b 36). Jirsak quotes Bohumil Hrabal, a modern Czech author, Author of Closely Watched Trains, which became a popular movie, who speaks of Svejk as a archetypal hero, like the man with no name in Western movies:
Svejk 'strides through the whole text untouched, without stripes on his uniform, without a wife, without children, without a mistress, almost without friends, but with his talk, like a sorcerer, he unmasks the degenerate world and defeats it! (Jirsak 154).
Stern says Svejk's reaction is the logical response to a lunatic world, and calls Svejk a sleepwalker (19; 199). He makes an intriguing comment about Svejk's idiocy; if it is real, Svejk confides in everyone; if shamed, he confides in no one (Stern 198). He is disappointed that Brecht asked Svejk to perform his Svejkery under the Third Reich; he insists that this wouldn't have worked (Stern 22). Brod called Svejk apolitical, an amoral and uplifting statement that, "'Man is indestructible'" (Chalupecky 151). Brecht agreed with the indestructible part, and that Svejk was politically innocent; he argued, though, that his indestructibility made him "an inexhaustible object of abuse and at the same time fertile soil for 'liberation'" (Pytlik b 87). Others see Svejk as very political. "'I consider The Good Soldier Svejk a work shot through with proletarian thinking...the supreme work of Czech proletarian literature'" (Ivan Olbracht, in Pytlik a 129). Many other prominent Communists share this opinion and state it emphatically (Pytlik a, pp. 120-131). Kovach points out that those who typify the novel as poor v. rich are missing an important point: nationalism. It is the Czech poor resisting the Austrian rich (259); the novel is not Marxist, Kovach says (255). Milan Kundera, a famous Czech dissident writer, wrote at least two articles citing Svejk as a voice against the Soviets (Kundera). Novomesky sees Svejk as a determined practitioner of passive resistance (Pytlik a, 122). Arie-Gaifman says the politics Svejk espouses is that of laughter:
Hasek's savior is the playing man. Play and laughter emerge from Hasek's novel as the only hope for humanity. This philosophical approach...is directly opposed to a whole trend in Christian philosophy which opposed laughter because, as John Chysostomus said, Jesus never laughed (210).
Conversely, Cecil Parrott, Hasek's translator and biographer, says that the book is "desperately sad" (175) and insists emphatically that Svejk, Svejk, and Hasek were apolitical (184-187). He speaks of Svejk as if he were any other novel character, with easily identifiable traits like a love of peace and optimism, based on reading straight, without assumptions of irony or satire, how Svejk acts in various scenes (Parrott 125-126). Then, as seems necessary with Svejk, Parrott contradicts himself, and calls Svejk a "cipher" (148). Lada, Svejk's illustrator, said, "he had all his wits about him, but could, if necessary, act stupidly" (Parrott 110). Petro claims that Svejk is "a cunning man who acts like a simpleton" (118); Becher typifies him as a lamb led to the sacrificial altar (Pytlik a, 109).
Willy Haas is among many who consider Svejk typically Slavic (Pytlik b, 66). Certainly the Austrians in the book typify him thus, "The whole Czech people are nothing but a pack of malingerers," they say (Hasek 61). Brod, though, saw Svejk as universal, saying, "a character like this is stating something that cannot really be stated, not only about his own nation, but also having something to do with the most mysterious foundations of the existence of all of humanity" (Pytlik b, 64). My favorite assessment of Svejk comes from Ivan Olbracht: "Svejk is an entirely new type in the literature of the world. Human phlegm seen from another angle" (Pytlik b, 64).
In efforts to illuminate Svejk, he has been compared to Sancho Panza and Sam Weller (Stern 201; Parrott 168); to Jan in Czech folktales (Pytlik a 101); to Jesus Christ (Stern 16; Ari-Gaifman; Winner 58); to Yossarian of Catch 22 (Stern 203); to Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp, Nasreddin Hodja and Falstaff (Pytlik b 70-78), and it has been said that he is not like Sam Weller or Sancho Panza in important ways (Parrott 193; Stern 198); No one I read compared Svejk to two folkloric characters he reminded me of: Scherezade and Coyote.
Svejk's author must have the last word. He has the empire denounce Svejk thus:
'We know all about you already. The swine thinks he will be taken as a genuine idiot. You're not an idiot at all, Svejk. you're cunning, you're foxy, you're a scoundrel, you're a hooligan, you're a lousy bastard, do you understand?' (Hasek 76).
But, for himself, Hasek announced:
I do not know whether I shall succeed in achieving my purpose with this book. The fact that I have already heard one man swear at another and say, 'You're about as big an idiot as Svejk" does not prove that I have. But if the word 'Svejk' becomes a new choice specimen in the already florid garland of abuse I must be content with this enrichment of the Czech language. (Hasek "Epilogue to Part I)
A Brief Review of Critical Discussion of Svejk and Its Style
The novel itself has been discussed as like and unlike a picar, (Kovach 256; Parrott 147; Pytlik b, 68); a collage, and a Menippean satire (Pytlik b 46; Snyder). It has been classed with or compared to All's Quiet on the Western Front; the Decameron; Candide; Ulysses (Pytlik b 71-78). Various sections have been read as satires on the Bible (Ari-Gaifman) and Homer's catalogue of ships in The Iliad.
Svejk's anecdotes and Aesop's tales are both often identified as survival strategies. They both use the language of and are apparently directed to an average person's understanding, without esoteric vocabulary or complex or flowery forms. Aesop's tales, though, as has already been stated, do not use colloquialisms, and are elegantly spare, and, as such, could be told or tailored for universal audiences. Svejk's anecdotes, however, are rambling, and exactingly local and personal. Svejk identifies characters by name, address, and history. They give the reader an "epic sense of Czech life" (Snyder 293).
Like Aesop's biography, Svejk's anecdotes are often scatological or obscene. Hasek spoke thus to the moral and aesthetic censors of the new Czechoslovakia:
"This novel is not a crutch to salon refinements and an educational book of expressions that can be used in good society. It is an historical picture of a certain time. If it was necessary to use a strong expression which really was uttered, I had no hesitation in presenting it in exactly the way it was said. I regard circumlocution or elision marks as the most stupid dissimulation" (Pytlik a 104).
Parrott sees feces in the novel as symbolic of Austria (159). Petro sees it as a deeply psychological affirmation of life and generativity (Petro 119).
After the question of Svejk's real or shamed stupidity, the novel's use of anecdotes and its episodic style is the next issue critics are most likely to tackle. It becomes, not, was Svejk an idiot or a genius? But, was Hasek a genius of style or a hack? Again we can see a parallel between Svejk and Aesop, but now in the critical treatment, rather than content, of the two books. Aesop, too, is episodic. Svejk's episodicity has been attributed to Hasek's previous habit of writing short pieces for newspapers. Aesop's episodicity might be attributed to its having been compiled from current popular brief narratives of incidents in the life of Aesop. However, some critics have decided that Aesop's structure is the result of a careful reflection on Aesop's rises and falls in status and effectiveness as a story teller rather than a lack of skill on the part of its writer/compiler (Holzberg). Hasek has undergone similar re-assessment. One wonders if the critical approaches to these works was affected by their having common men as heroes. It might be that critics initially see art about the poor as poor art, rough hewn and unsophisticated, and are slow to search such works for the meaningful construction they insist exist in art by elites.
Parrott says that Hasek wrote the way he did because he lacked experience as a novelist (161). He says that Svejk's stories create a diversion when Svejk is in trouble, make the book amusing and colorful, prove Svejk's idiocy, and give Svejk a chance to vent. It might be pointed out that Svejk's very first story, beginning on the second page, is not told when Svejk is in trouble, that Hasek wrote other works which were amusing and colorful and did not employ the story telling device; and that Svejk proves his idiocy in a number of ways. Jirsak says Hasek is using a tried and true form of Czech folklore (157); this begs the question; why are stories like Svejk's tried and true in Czech folklore? Dolezel says that Svejk's plot goes in circular patterns because Hasek's life did. But of course, Hasek didn't use circular patterns in all his writing. Ari-Gaifman says that Svejk's anecdotes create "ludic space" (198-99; 203); still, we are left with the "desperate sadness" of the book. Stern says the anecdotes gain their humor from being irrelevant (201-203); surely, though, not just irrelevance has had the hold on readers' and critics' attentions and passions as this work has. Pytlik characterizes the tales and their telling in more Aesopian terms: he calls Svejk's anecdotes fables, used the way Aesop used his fable about Croesus: to transmit taboo thoughts. Further, he says, it is only while he is telling stories that Svejk is in control (Pytlik b 56, 52).
A Comparison of the Narrative Strategies of Svejk and Aesop
When I read Aesop for the first time, it inspired me to hope that even in the pre-Christian Classical World, in whose literature the rich and powerful are depicted as also good and valuable, and the poor and powerless are also depicted as bad and worthless, someone saw. Someone saw, and, blessedly, recorded and told, that a slave, an ethnic minority, a poor man, could be gifted, intelligent, and valuable, in a way that his betters were not. I was delighted that Aesop used narrative as a weapon, and triumphed with it. Thus he displayed the value of art and storytelling, a tool any common man might be able to lay claim to, and survive. The poorest and lowest of creatures a dung beetle could, inspired by the appealing impetus of simple loyalty to a friend, mount to the highest god and foil the schemes of the mighty and beautiful to avenge a friend's death. Aesop, for me, was a model of the use of narrative as a subversive strategy.
Then I read The Good Soldier Svejk. This book blew me away. I reread Aesop. It wasn't the same; compared to Svejk, Aesop struck me as what black people might call an Uncle Tom, struck me as a variation of Polish-American playwright Arthur Miller's Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. I decided that of Svejk and Aesop, Svejk was the more subversive narrator, and the more subversive narrative.
Perry, in an annoyingly patronizing sounding sentence, assures us that the Aesop biography is history as seen through the eyes of the poor in spirit (Holzberg 4-5). Holzberg, though, says that there is currently no evidence that the author was committed to social change (Holzberg 11). Daly reports that Aesop, a slave, achieves a moral triumph over his betters (Daly 20); one could not imagine such a turn around in other Classical literature, that celebrates the rich, beautiful, and powerful, and despises the poor, women, and the powerless. Daly says the book contains anti-Hellenic bias (Daly 22); Xanthus accuses Aesop of blasphemy against the Hellenic world (49). In a world where learning was highly valued, the book points out that "much so called learning is nonsense" (Goins 28).
Even so, Aesop is not as outside of things as Svejk, and neither are his narratives as radical, nor their subversion of dominant paradigms. Immediately in his introduction, Daly places Aesop firmly in the Greek tradition, as a reflection of and support for such famous Greek maxims as "Know thyself" (Daly 11). He treats Aesop as a worthy example in the Greek tradition of self criticism, and a reflection of the Greek spirit (Daly 23). Baker cites the Thales/astronomer-falls-in-a-ditch motif to describe the Aesopic fable tradition being used as an internal critique of the tradition it is part of (Baker 584). The very quality that makes the fables so excellent as weapons for the poor and powerless, their multi-interpretability, makes them acceptable to those comfortably invested in dominant paradigms. As Patterson says, the same fable might be adopted as meaningful for a slave a real outsider or for a king temporarily between gigs (Patterson 5).
In Ancient Greek romance novels, the reader is rewarded for having had the stomach to sit through a story about a lowly slave with the recognition scene in which it is eventually revealed that he was really high-born all along, but disguised by some obscure and temporary curse. No, no high birth is concocted for Aesop, but , after not revealing any solidarity affection, enthusiasm, or respect for slaves as slaves, he, given speech, suddenly takes on all the characteristics of a high born man.
Aesop doesn't want to be what he is, to associate with other slaves. His dream does not involve solidarity and community with other slaves and a better, more equitable world for all. No, "I am Spartacus," here. Aesop wants to kick the guy at the top off the top and occupy that oppressive top by himself. He has his eye on his boss's flashy Caddillac, and he's going to get it, with all its tragic flaws.
In the very first episode of Aesop, we are assured that our hero is not one of them, that he knows better than they, that he is worthy of having a whole book devoted to him. In this opening episode he does not use his native wit to outsmart his master; he uses it to outwit deceitful, mean spirited slaves, slaves who are intent on hurting him (Daly 31). He uses the first chance he gets, after he is given speech in return for his devotion to the status quo and the powers that be, to offer to be a chide to other slaves, in order to get in good with the new boss in his life (Daly 37). He mocks the idea of solidarity among the oppressed, using his promise of "I am one of you," to trick yet more venal slaves into giving him the easiest job (Daly 38-39). While still a slave, he argues how much slaves appreciate a benign version of slavery (Daly 43). He laughs at another slave's misfortunes (Daly 41). He is well assessed by his betters (Daly 42). Knowing he shouldn't be a slave, he has much resentment against his master (Daly 54), yet he knows when to flatter those more powerful than he (Daly 83). Stylistically, he is like the high born heroes of the romance novels, in that he is given a lament, in which he articulately bemoans his status as a slave (Daly 36).
Aesop takes on and thrives at his masters' concerns and value systems. Intelligence, a very particular kind of intelligence, is valued here. This kind of intelligence, involving kings conducting war through mailed conundrums (Daly 78) and gardeners trading their vegetables for apt replies to tricky questions posed to philosophers (Daly 50), and men assessing other men (Daly 63; 69-70), can make a man famous, a star, like Xanthus. Aesop proves himself better than the best at this aristocrat's value and concern. Xanthus himself says, "I bought myself a teacher." (Daly 52).
Aesop's Cadillac dreams demand that he gain the adulation of people who formerly scorned him as a slave. Aesop's subversiveness is of the safe kind; he can't get what he wants, what he deserves, unless he gets it through the acknowledged rules of the very system which oppresses him. Aesop is so much better at what his master does that he saves Xanthus when Xanthus overextends his own intelligence (Daly 65; 74). Even so, and even though Aesop saves face for Xanthus, Xanthus will not free him. Aesop then resorts to using society's prejudices about slaves to wangle his freedom (Daly 74). A free man, Aesop is quoted as passing on to a young person in his care society's conservative views about the "benign" way to own another human being (Daly 81). He offers no radical out to the system as is. He merely offers the system as new and improved by the tools the system itself loves best: discourse, rationality, and application of current ideas of what is good and bad.
Aesop gets the adulation from the aristocrats that he so desperately wanted. He has unquestioned status as a wiseman (Daly 76); he tells kings what to do, and they obey; he contracts for peace, and receives honors (Daly 78); in his absence, a king can neither eat or drink (Daly 80).
Aesop steps into the role of a stock folklore hero: Ahikar. Then, like a tragic hero, he cannot save himself. His articulateness, now let loose and not hidden behind fables, gets him killed. That he is a part of the system, and not a subversive outsider, is proven by the outcome of his execution: society, in condemning this poet, condemns itself (Compton 330). Adrados says that there must be an expiation for Aesop's execution (103). Even in his victim stance, Aesop achieves a moral triumph (Daly 20).
As an indication of his more radically subversive position, in spite of their fellow status as ugly/servant/tale tellers, none of the elements of the Aesop biography mentioned above could be applied to Svejk. No one could argue that Svejk is part of, or voices the concerns of, the Austrian empire. That overriding concern was not display and application of a certain kind of intelligence, it was, rather, militarism, control, and conquest. Svejk is never seen as a successful warrior or imperialist; he never becomes like even that Czech military hero, Radetzky (Hasek 77), or the nationalist heroes of Czech post-war narratives (Novak 289). He mentions his own renunciation of Catholicism, the state religion, mocks the monarchy, and, as mentioned above, is a pacifist. If Svejk died, no one would have to "expiate" his death; he would be like the above-mentioned anonymous Serb corpses swinging from trees in the officer's photos. But he doesn't die.
Svejk's anecdotes, idiosyncratic and colloquial as they are, could never be co-opted by his betters. In a brilliant insight, Gatt-Rutter points out that many tell Svejkian anecdotes in Svek.(Gatt-Rutter 4). If these anecdotes are a folk form, as has been suggested above, Hasek, unlike the Aesop author, who presents his hero as the lone source of fables, gives them to the people. There is one exception: no aristocrats or Austrians imperialists tell anecdotes (Gatt-Rutter 11). Is this just petty spite on Hasek's part? Or is something deeper going on here in the characters' choice of expressive forms?
Svejk is never revealed to be any more or less than the rumpled, rambling self proclaimed idiot that he appears to be on the first page. And on that first page, and many pages thereafter, he is experiencing solidarity with others of his station. He converses intimately with a cleaning woman; goes to jail with a barkeep. He has every opportunity to suck up, to ass kiss, but, unlike Aesop, he never takes them. Conversely, at least on first inspection it seems contrary, Svejk never expresses the kind of resentment of his betters that Aesop exposes over and over in his tortures of Xanthus; in fact, he goes out of his way to help them (e.g. Hasek 368). Svejk, too, is no Spartacus, no Janosik; he has no program for class betterment and lectures an army officer on how he must be harsh to his men. What could be going on here?
Finally, of course, Svejk reveals no, and achieves no, Cadillac dreams. In the first Lada illustration, Svejk is shown massaging sore body parts, a favorite and realizable indulgence of the lowly. One gets the impression from the illustration that he is quite content. Yet he faces death fighting for a foreign monarch. Whence this contentment? I find myself mostly agreeing with Czech and other Slavic critics, and laughing at Western ones. When I read that Joseph Heller dismissed Svejk as "just a funny book," (Stern 210), I felt peculiarly gratified. A history of oppression forces people to understand things that other people are lucky enough never to have to experience, and therefore don't immediately understand. Pytlik jumps on "petty bourgeois intellectuals" for their horror over the idea that Svejk could be everything he appears, to have no utopian program, to not be an individualist, and yet also a hero (Pytilk b, 63).
Hasek's novel's structure is not artless but a sophisticated, coherent support of his main idea, and that his main idea is a little more complex than, "What's Svejk's IQ?" This question has so vexed critics not just because it is not answered straight out in the text. It has vexed critics because behind it lays a bigger question: are lowly people as intelligent, complex, sensitive, integral, as the elite (i.e., those likely to be writing literary criticism)? Are they intelligent in the same way as the elite? Not with a different, craven, animal kind of intelligence such as the tricky slaves revealed in the first scene of Aesop or the kind the Austrian denouncing Svejk quoted above spoke of a swinish,"foxy" intelligence but are they intelligent in the same way that the elite are? And, if they are how scary! That they might be troubled by being pawns, canon fodder, impoverished. That they might have cultures, systems of signification, languages, complex world views, of their own, completely esoteric to the elite. That they might be talking right in front of their betters, and those betters might not understand! That they might be covertly subverting the pressure their superiors exert for them to carry out their wishes! Might they have some kind of ability to withstand elite efforts to buy or sell their hearts and minds and annihilate their bodies? Those are revolutionary ideas, no matter whether the elite is imperialist, fascist, communist, or the fictional ones of Orwell or Kafka.
Hasek knows and describes in small, telling details the lives of the elite. He describes a winter night when the troops are freezing and the officers have to open their windows because their room has been overheated. He gives the whole history of privilege in one brief genealogy: "Colonel Friedrich Kraus, who bore the additional title of von Zillergut after a village in the district of Salzburg which his ancestors had already completely fleeced in the eighteenth century, was a most venerable idiot" (201). Even so, there is no effort on the part of his main character to enter that warm room, to engage in that privileged theft. Svejk can't win that competition because "he's not in the game" (Kosik 130). Hasek, unlike Aesop or the Aesop author, displays in his motivations and his use of exclusively folk forms an enthusiasm for common people. Svejk revels in the company of the lowly; Hasek revels in colloquial Czech. Hasek's use of colloquial Czech in his writing was revolutionary.
Svejk's narrative style is different from that of his betters; so, too, is his overarching attitude. Over and over again, Svejk is said to have an expression of bliss, tenderness, or compassion. Svejk accepts the world as he finds it. He renders unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and part of that involves accepting people. "'There have to be crooks in this world too,' said Svejk, lying down on his straw mattress. 'If everyone were honest with each other, they'd soon start punching each other's noses.'" (Hasek 30). He doesn't participate in empire as a good cog, but he doesn't try to create a new world, either. He has no utopian alternative. He has, instead, the viewpoint of a citizen of a part of the world which "history destroyed" (Kundera 725). Svejk, unlike Aesop, admits, lives in, a world of unreason, a world that can't be corrected (Snyder 289-90). There is no viable alternative or corrective; Svejk, in his self defined idiot's brain, has admitted historical, moral, social, negation:
Svejk does not try to reform the world. It is impossible to reform it anyway. The character of Svejk emerges from the very abyss of nihilism. Nothing, no reason, is valid. The institutions of our society are good for nothing. Reason is futile, morality is futile. Good and evil, stupidity and wisdom, honor and misery are no longer distinguishable, for there is no way a distinction can be made (Chalupecky 148).
This no-exit world view is expressed in many of Svejk's anecdotes. Svejk is warned: "'So you see, you bastard, what happens here when anyone starts getting awkward or trying to escape. It's sheer suicide, and by the way, suicide's punished, too'" (Hasek 82). A two-year-old wanders away from home; Svejk reports that a policeman took him to the police station and locked him up. "And if he'd been able to speak and anyone had asked him why he was locked up there, he wouldn't have known either. And it's rather like that with me. I'm a foundling, too" (Hasek 94). Even those who get out of jams experience a limited reprieve:
"You're in a jam, but you mustn't lose hope. It can still change for the better as the gypsy Janacek said in Pilsen when in 1879 they put the cord round his neck for double robbery with murder. He was right in his guess, because at the very last moment they took him away from the gallows, as they couldn't hang him, owing to its being the birthday of His Imperial Majesty which fell on the same day when he ought to be hanged. And so they hanged him the following day after the birthday had passed But just imagine the luck that bastard had, because on the third day he got a pardon and his case had to be taken up again, as everything pointed to the fact that it was another Janacek who had committed the crime. So they had to dig him out of the convicts' cemetery and rehabilitate him in the Catholic cemetery at Pilsen. But afterwards it turned out that he had been an evangelical and so they transferred him to the evangelical cemetery. After that
" (Hasek 381).
All right, here's another example:
Svejk took a pipe out of his tunic, lit it and, emitting the pungent smoke of army tobacco, continued: 'Years ago the station master at Svitava was a Mr. Wagner. He was a devil to his subordinates and gave them hell whenever he could, but the chap he was most down on was the points-man Jungwirt. Finally in despair the wretched man went and drowned himself in the river. But before doing so, he wrote a letter to the station master saying that he'd come and haunt him in the night. And to tell you the honest truth, that was exactly what he did. In the night the good station master was sitting at his telegraph receiver when the bell rang and he received the following telegram: "How are you, you old bastard? Jungwirt." This lasted a whole week and the station master began to send official telegrams across all the lines to answer the ghost: "Forgive me, Jungwirt." And in the night the receiver knocked out the following reply: "Go and hang yourself from the signals at the bridge. Jungwirt." And the station master obeyed. Afterwards they jailed the telegraphist from the station before Svitava. You see, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy' (Hasek 227).
And yet, even when he is not using up his limited and feeble poor man's gifts in active resistance of oppressive power, he somehow manages to resist. This is shown not just in the literal fool episodes where he foils his superiors' orders while protesting that he is a good and obedient servant, but also in encounters with his peers, including a scene when a fellow prisoner of the empire announces, with self pity, that he is going to kill himself. Svejk verbally encourages the man, and, of course, this prevents the suicide from taking place (Hasek 38-39).
Finally, I would argue that Hasek, and Svejk's, apparent lack of mastery in conventional narrative forms is in fact a display of wonderfully sophisticated mastery. "The accepted conceptual currency of the first quarter of the twentieth century is problematized," Gatt-Rutter says (2), and I agree. Stern, among others, argues that Svejk is an anti-war novel, which states the meaninglessness of war (207). Kundera sees so much more. In assessing another Czech writer, Karel Capek, the man who gave the word "robot" to the world, Kundera says, "The non-historical will for power suddenly appears under the features of a fantastic totalitarianism, the step forward of which has been substituted for what one thought was historical progress" (Kundera 21). Not just war, but history, the conventions of narrative itself, ----ed the Czech people. 1938 and 1968 immediately spring to mind. An event that was a disaster in Czechoslovakia was interpreted by the West as "peace in our time. They responded to this with their own narratives, in which heroes, perspectives, foci, motivations, were altered from those of the elite, of nations allowed a more overt and externally expressed self determination. The most celebrated lines of Svejk are its first, in which, informed of the assassination of Ferdinand, Svejk wonders if the cleaning woman means the Ferdinand who worked at the chemist or the Ferdinand who collected dog manure (Hasek 1-2). He does not wonder these things because he is stupid; he does so because, in his world, archdukes are on a par with dog manure collectors, and are paid the same complement they are referred to by their first names (Parrot 149; Ari-Gaifman 204). Hasek couldn't have known that the outcome of that assasination was recorded in the diary of world renowned, acknoweldgely intelligent Czech author, Franz Kafka, thus: "Germany has declared war against Russia. Afternoon, swimming pool" (Kundera 21). It is not accidental that, throughout the book, Svejk is referred to as using texts of official narratives as toilet paper.
Hasek telegraphs his intention of satirizing official narratives from the first, with his title, which is mock-epic, as is his preface, in which Svejk is referred to in stirring terms as an exceptional hero. He repeatedly parodies styles and quotes from official narratives, including the Bible, Shakespeare, and official pronouncements from the empire (e.g.: Hasek 227; Stern 17). He is not only disrespecting these texts; he is also disrespecting, toying with, any expectations on the part of his audience for a sudden recognition scene in which Svejk is revealed as a conventional hero in disguise, in which Svejk gets a satisfying revenge on his tormentors, or in which Svejk finds a girl / loses a girl / gets a girl. Gatt-Rutter says that Hasek's lack of description of Svejk's inner thoughts and feelings is conscious, not the result of bad technique. Hasek thus avoids, he says, "the individualistic fallacy." "The book proffers no privileged subject not Svejk, not the reader, not even the author" (7). He is defying even that fundamental urge on the part of his audience for change, for resolution. Change and resolution would imply a world view that Hasek is not invested in here: that people can change; that life has transcendent meaning as something other than survival or, indeed, that survival itself is not entertaining or noble enough; that there is some reward for telling stories that is somehow more profound than beer and sausage and a momentary sparkle in the eye of an old working class drunk; that there is some critique more important than that working man's interest or laughter; that something can happen that will in any way alter the initial horror and disgust one feels when first reading of those photos of peasant corpses swinging decoratively from trees. In the face of all this, Hasek, like Svejk, just goes on telling his stories. Why? Subversion. When you have something to sell that the customer thinks he does not want to buy, "'You must talk to people, sir,'" Svejk explains to Lukas, "'And keep on talking to them until the customer gets completely crazy'" (Hasek 174).
List of Works Consulted
Adrados, Francisco R. "The 'Life of Aesop' and the Origins of the Novel in Antiquity" Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica , 1979, 93-112.
Baker, Howard. "A Portrait of Aesop." The Sewanee Review 78:557-590, 1969.
Chalupecky, Jindrich. "The Tragic Comedy of Jaroslav Hasek," Crosscurrents 1983, 137-153.
Clayton, J. Douglas and Schaarsmidt, Gunter, eds. Poetica Slavica: Studies in Honor of Zbigniew Folejewski. Ottowa: University of Ottawa Press, 1981.
Compton, Todd. "The Trial of the Satirist: Poetic Vitae as Background for Plato's Apology," American Journal of Philology 111:330-347, 1990.
Daly, Lloyd W. Aesop Without Morals New York: T. Yoseloff, 1961.
Dolezel, Lubomir. "Circular Patterns: Hasek and The Good Soldier Svejk" pp. 21-28 in Clayton, ed.
Dundes, Alan. Folklore Matters Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1989.
Gaifman, Hana Arie. "Svejk Don Quixote Jesus Christ," pp. 191-213 in Tobin, ed.
Gatt-Rutter, John. "Macrohistories and Microhistories: Jaroslav Hasek's Osudy Dobreho Vojaka Svejka za svetove valky," Journal of European Studies 21:1-17, 1991.
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