Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Good Soldier Švejk discussion: Book Two “At the Front"

Švejk before the divisional court
Illustration by Josef Lada
Picture source

Despite this section’s title, Švejk does not make it to the front, although if the real battle is with bureaucracy then he is constantly "at the front." He does travel, with and without his regiment, from Prague to a staging and training area just east of Vienna. By accident, Švejk’s train to the staging area stops due to the emergency brake being pulled. While being questioned about his involvement in this incident, Švejk’s train continues without him. After missing the next train, he is told to walk to the camp. His “Anabasis” follows him through the countryside, meeting good-hearted people that wish to help him. A sergeant assumes Švejk’s simplistic answers mask a cunning Russian spy, detaining the simpleton for interrogation. After being cleared of charges and spending three days in gaol, he is reunited with Lieutenant Lukáš at the staging area/camp near Királyhida. Švejk botches the delivery of a love letter from Lukáš, leading first to his arrest and then to his appointment as company orderly. The section ends as the company prepares to travel to the front, although which one (Russian or Serbian) is uncertain. Along the way we meet new characters like the army volunteer, whose stint as editor of The Animal World magazine saw him invent Dr. Seuss-like animals for his publication. The following are a few general themes that caught my eye in this section:

Increased focus on the war
Several times Hašek has characters wish for death, usually in a jest or at least in a light-hearted manner. When Švejk tells Lieutenant Lukáš that he is awfully happy to be sent to the front because it will “be really marvelous when we both fall dead together for His Imperial Majesty and the Royal Family”, the reader laughs at Švejk’s simplemindedness. A little later the lieutenant muses that getting killed at the front will cause him to “be quit of this miserable world, in which a hideous brute like Švejk was rampaging about.” There are several more examples like this, the musing or wish being whimsical to some extent. After a while the reader has to question how unbearable things have become when a preference for death is repeatedly considered, however lighthearted the intent.

During Švejk’s Anabasis, he was usually viewed as a deserter despite his protestations to the contrary. He was helped despite (or rather because of) his purported deserter status. Those trying to help Švejk give many reasons in helping a deserter, but most fall under some form of compassion. The contrast with the earlier enthusiasm for the war (sometimes dubbed in history books as “August madness”) is explicitly detailed by the narrator and one of the soldiers. Both compare the earliest receptions by soldiers with the meager greeting (or complete indifference) by locals expressed at this point months into the war.

There are a few accounts, mostly second-hand, of the fighting at the front, although the first report does not occur until page 303 in my version of the book (almost halfway through the novel). Following the first description of the front is another that revolves around just how much defecation happens in battle and at death…an extremely graphic and memorable passage. The volume of army desertions are high while various officers fail to address basic problems underlying the campaign, focusing on military trappings or discipline instead.

Observations from the narrator happen more frequently in this section than in Book One. Hašek can be subtle in his jests and descriptions while at other times he ascends a soapbox. While there is nothing subtle about the following, Hašek is at his most effective in moments like this description:

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.

Just because someone claims to be anti-war in the novel doesn’t mean they exhibit higher morals. Some of Švejk’s fellow prisoners have committed atrocious crimes, trying to paint their transgression as noble since it was done for money instead of nationalism.

Bureaucracy and the incompetence of those implementing it
For the most part the bureaucrats/soldiers/etc. continue to try and ‘game’ the system to benefit themselves. The amount of paperwork sent their way can cause someone at any level to feel like they are being driven crazy. The lower rungs in the hierarchy respond by putting everything “into the report so that the people at the top are so foxed by it that their eyes boggle.” Several times bureaucracy is described as a storm, with this new force of nature disrupting and devastating everything in its path. Terror is often viewed as an essential application to the soldiers, the only effective means of achieving discipline. Those in charge, whether religious, civic or military, continue to be skewered. Chaplain Lacina’s portrayal of a gluttonous, drunken lout continues satirizing all things religious that began with Chaplain Katz.

Those who know the rules are usually those that fail to follow them. The volunteer who accompanies Švejk in the prison car can quote decrees, articles, and rules that apply to others while acting outside the rules that relate to him. Quartermaster Sergeant-Major Vaněk provides an example of an experienced soldier who knows how to deal with the bureaucracy—he doesn’t believe anything he is told. He knows the reality and practicality of how things really work and ignores the meaningless instructions that rain down on him from above. Švejk provides another example of how to deal with the chaos all around—he leaves the phone off the hook and sleeps, a fitting portrait of how everything swirls around him while remaining blisfully unaware.

The portrait of the divisional court illustrates Hašek’s attitude toward civil and religious authority in a few emblematic descriptions (see the Lada illustration at the top of this post):

A volume of the legal code lay before him [the judge], and a half-consumed glass of tea stood on top of it. On the table on the right stood a crucifix made out of imitation ivory with a dusty Christ, who looked despairingly at the pedestal of his cross, on which there were ashes and cigarette stubs.

To the renewed regret of the crucified Jesus Judge Advocate Ruller was at this very moment flicking the ash from another cigarette on to the pedestal of the crucifix. With his other hand he was raising the glass of tea, which had got stuck to the legal code.

What good are these institutions when the law is more useful as a coaster and religion is better used as an ash tray? In the next sentences we find the judge is more interested in pornography than in tending to his cases.

When Lieutenant Lukáš recounts the pathetic performance of his company during night operations/practice, the comedy of the bureaucracy is tempered because the reader is reminded of the stakes. The incompetent individuals and the unmanageable bureaucracy will get people killed. I don’t believe Hašek wished that soldiers were more competent or that they could be an effective and efficient killing force. Instead of offering solutions, Hašek points out that effectiveness and efficiency are impossible in a society structured this way. All it takes is a tomcat rearranging the flags and pins on a battlefield map to throw the entire army into confusion.

Stratification and lack of unity
Hašek shows the various ethnicities within the Austro-Hungarian Empire at each other’s throat. How are they to fight a common enemy when they are busy fighting among their own camps? Švejk’s friend Vodička seems to live for fighting other ethnic groups, regardless that they are on the same side. Despite newspaper accounts of the “unanimity reigning in the hearts of our peoples”, the reader sees little proof of that solidarity. Differences aren’t reserved for ethnic groups—witness Colonel Schröder’s comments and treatment of reserve officers and regulars or the “blood feud” existing between artillery men and the regimental patrols. Soldiers provide detailed examples of ‘fragging’ officers at the front.

The racial aspect, though, baffles me. What was Hašek doing with Švejk’s cross-breeding story at the start of Chapter Three? Just as bad is the quote from the volunteer (a fellow prisoner), “There’s a theory that raping girls of another nationality is the best recipe against degeneration.” My only guess lies with Hašek pointing out the lack of cohesion between the ethnic groups of the empire in addition to exhibiting the coarse composition of mankind.

The military camp at the staging area provides differences between officers and rank-and-file soldiers that you would expect, like soldiers shivering in their huts while officers swelter from overheating. There are unexpected (to me) distinctions as well, such as in the differing levels of ‘quality’ provided in transportable brothels. Švejk seemingly supports the stratification when referring to another batman as “it” or an orderly as a “thing”, recognizing that assistants to officers are objects and not regarded as human.

Attitudes and actions turn meaner
Some of the examples above hint toward this change of atmosphere, especially in the stratification topic. Whether driving superiors crazy or spoiling for a fight with those supposedly on your side, conflict is taken up a notch. Other actions are more subtle. Up to this point Švejk has (relatively) faithfully followed superior’s orders, but now there are some lapses that have enormous ramifications. Instead of delivering Lieutenant Lukáš’ love letter as directed, Švejk runs into Vodička and the soldiers get reacquainted. This delays the delivery of the letter until lunch when the husband of the targeted lady is at home. This is not a mistake the Švejk of Book One would have made.

Švejk shows one of his inconsistencies in telling his friend Vodička that he should always “say in court what isn’t true” although Švejk almost always tells the truth. It could be a lack of self-awareness, or more likely just a case of his inability to behave without guile even though he knows that is what others do. I don’t think he comprehends that telling the truth throws his superiors for a loop.

Vodička reacts with rage when he is acquitted of fighting with Hungarians, not because it means he will be sent to the front but because it diminishes his exploits. He exists to fight and it doesn’t matter to him who’s on the receiving end. Being a soldier does not channel Vodička's anger. He finds new targets to confront while travelling across his own country. His constant anger reflects the increased tone of confrontation demonstrated by many of the characters.

Instead of ending this post on anger, I'll relay the parting conversation between Vodička and Švejk. I'm not sure why I find it so funny, but I do...

Švejk and Vodička say goodbye
Illustration by Josef Lada
Picture source

When Švejk said goodbye to Vodička and each of them was taken off to his unit he said: "When the war's over come and see me. You'll find me every evening from six o'clock onwards in the The Chalice at Na Bojišti." ...

"Very well, then, at six o'clock in the evening when the war's over!" shouted Vodička from below.

"Better if you come at half-past six, in case I should be held up somewhere," answered Švejk.

And then Vodička's voice could be heard again this time from a great distance: "Can't you come at six?"

"Very well then, I'll come at six," Vodička heard his retreating friend reply.

1 comment:

Rupinder said...

You were correct dear man, I did adore the production despite the cycnic in me thinking it would be just for families with kids.

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