Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Good Soldier Švejk discussion: Books Three and Four—“The Glorious Licking” and “The Glorious Licking Continued”

The major-general inspecting the latrines
Illustration by Josef Lada
Picture source

“Stupid people have to exist too, because if everyone were wise then there would be so much good sense in the world that every other person would be driven crazy by it.”

Most resources I’ve read mention that Hašek intended six volumes for The Good Soldier Švejk. Sites like Wikipedia say he completed only four books, but that is misleading: in the Penguin Classics version I have, the first three books average over 200 pages each while the fourth book ends after 80 pages. These last two books follow Švejk and his regiment as they head toward the front. Once again, Švejk get separated from his outfit, this time being mistaken for a Russian soldier (wearing a Russian uniform helped give that impression).

Near the start of Book Three, a trainload of enthusiastic soldiers, singing lustily, passes by Švejk’s company. One soldier loses his balance and is impaled on the track points-lever.

“He’s had his war,” said the good soldier Švejk, who was also among the curious sightseers, “and he has the advantage that having a bit of iron in his belly, everybody at least knows where he’s buried. It’s just on the railway line and you don’t have to hunt for his grave all over the battlefields.”

The tone is set for this section. Švejk and his unit never make it to the front but they pass through areas where there has been fierce fighting, examples of the destruction of life and property all around them. While there is no direct fighting here, second-hand stories are relayed in addition to soldiers’ prior experiences in battle.

One of the underlying currents in this section revolves around comparisons with how things used to be, current experiences always falling short of previous examples. There are several references by different characters to Joseph Radetzky, as if hoping that past success and glory will translate to the present. The disconnect with the past occurs immediately when the soldiers try to explain how an entire regiment can surrender willingly to the Russians. I believe I inadvertently included Chodounský’s stories of “August madness”, his early experiences during the Great War, in the discussion on Book Two. His tales of local citizens greeting those going to war as heroes, plying the soldiers with food and drink (and to which the soldiers repaid with contempt) occur in Book Three. The tepid or hostile reception Švejk’s company receives markedly contrasts with previous stories. The timeframe between “now and then” does not have to be very long—as the company approaches the front, rations decrease noticeably and soldiers long for minimal comforts available at previous posts.

Beauracracy continues to the main target of Hašek. As the troops approach the front, the emphasis focuses mainly on the military red-tape and incompetence. As described previously, gaming the system is an accepted and expected practice. “War demanded valour even in pilfering.” Chodounský’s stories paint a picture of an incompetent military staff. The meanness of officers comes through as well, such as an orderly sent to the front (a sure death sentence at the time) on a whim since he failed to procure his colonel a portion of rolled roast sirloin of veal at a farewell party.

One of my favorite storylines concerns the codes used for transmitting messages. Hašek starts the segment describing the colonel who issued Ludwig Ganghofer’s The Sins of the Fathers to all the officers, making him appear a little ‘barmy’ for instructing subordinates to “never forget page 161!” Then things look a little better for the colonel when the reader realizes that the page represents the key to deciphering coded messages. But Hašek undermines that realization with comic and devastating revelations. It turns out that this particular cipher system had been spelled out in a military handbook. Cadet Biegler points how some bureaucrat saved time by exactly copying the example in the handbook in order to complete his job. The comedy of this section revolves around the realization that Švejk, with the best of intentions, only distributed Part I of The Sins of the Fathers to the officers while the code relies on page 161 of Part II. Even with the appropriate volume, the cipher system was complex and unwieldy, forcing officers to send uncoded messages.

This is where Hašek’s devastating comments on the war shine through brilliantly. Hašek can be direct in a manner that leaves me feeling cold (“A military train was again carrying off to Galicia another herd of men driven to the slaughter-house” and “While here they were smashing the king with the ace, far away at the front kings were smashing each other with their serfs”). But more subtle examples, such as the cipher fiasco, gets his point across much more effectively. Hašek’s view that bureaucracy kills, whether literally in the sense of battle or figuratively when it comes to the soul, would resonate with those familiar with The Great War. There were many instances where sending messages “in the clear” led to defeats and additional dead, the Battle of Tannenberg being one of the most famous examples. That the reader can still laugh at an event that could possibly have deadly consequences highlights Hašek at his best.

Hašek continues his black comedy in many forms, such as Cadet Biegler filling his pants after drinking and eating too much. Even though the doctor says nothing is wrong, Beigler is ordered to the hospital for dysentery and contracts cholera. The incompetency surrounding his journey maintains humor despite the possible grim outcome. Lunacy is the order of the day, at times quite literally. A brigadier goes crazy and continues to telegraph orders to his commands. Even though everyone knows he is crazy, his conflicting and irrational commands continue to be sent since divisional headquarters has not ordered the telegraph stations to quit delivering his telegrams. There is the example of a doddering major-general who seems to be living in another world, forgoing logic and reality in order to fixate on regulating men’s bowel movements. He recommends Švejk for a promotion and a medal for saluting while in the latrines. There are numerous examples of the dehumanization caused by the war, few as powerful as General Fink von Finkenstein. Basically a hanging judge, his letters home to his wife make it difficult to discern if he is the result of dehumanization or if he’s just crazy.

Since Hašek wrote Švejk over several years, questions of consistency arise at times. In these two books, Švejk is much more cynical at times (“I love it when people drivel utter bunkum” in response to a chaplain’s drumhead mass). He can also be venomously mean at times, such as inventing orders to torture his replacement Baloun or guessing Lieutenant Dub’s sexual preference. The passivity that marked Švejk in Book One is replaced by a more resolute character. He is very forceful in his retrieval of Lieutenant Dub from the whorehouse. Švejk acts with force and threats, as part of an advance guard, in the town of Liskowiec and with its mayor. The argument could be made that Švejk becomes more forceful in his role as a soldier, but I’m not sure that completely covers the difference.

One of the major changes in the book is the development of a friendship (of sorts) between Lieutenant Lukáš and Švejk. Lukáš’ reactions to Švejk’s antics lean toward hopelessness and desperation instead of anger. There are even instances where the lieutenant smiles at Švejk ‘s ramblings, enjoying their conversations and requesting to hear anecdotes. The reaction of both Lukáš and Švejk when the lieutenant finds out Švejk had been buying double portions for him shows a tenderness that each feels for the other despite them trying to downplay it. Unfortunately some of the relationship stays the same out of necessity, as Lukáš demonstrates: “If you only knew, Švejk, what you’ve done… But you will never learn that… .” Švejk never learns or understands because no one ever tells him—they assume the absurdity of what he has done is obvious. Instead Švejk feels “respect for himself. It did not happen every day that he committed something so frightful that he must never be allowed to learn what it was.”

There are additional characters that receive more development in this section. Below are a few that I’ve picked to highlight:

Baloun: a giant of a man that lives only to fill his stomach, which is unfortunate because of the incompetence of the army in supplying soldiers. Many of the characters are driven by food, drink and sex (and not always in that order). Baloun’s focus only on food makes him a stock comic character.

Lieutenant Dub: a schoolmaster before the war, he has a personal vendetta against Švejk. His standard line for everyone is “You don’t know me! You know me from my good side, but wait till you get to know me from my bad side! I’ll make you cry!” However, he is only capable of bluster, hiding behind his rank. Švejk has so much contempt for Dub that, after running through possible offensive classifications, he describes the lieutenant as a “semi-fart”. While Dub is Švejk’s nemesis, at times you get the feeling there is an uneven match of wits (in Švejk’s favor, believe it or not).

Marek: a one-year volunteer always getting in trouble. He warmly accepts his assignment as battalion historian. Taking his duties seriously, he records his battalion’s victorious glories before they happen, detailing all the conquests and heroic deaths he foresees will occur. As pointed out earlier, past successes are assumed to translate into future triumphs.

While Book Four shows promise in remaining funny and biting (for example Chaplain Martinec’s spiritual consolation given to Švejk before the latter’s planned hanging), the quality seems more uneven than previous books. Hašek starts to sound like Švejk, inserting anecdotes of his own when trying to make a point. He even inserts hypothetical monologues he imagines Švejk would utter, something well out of the author's character to this point. Still, an uneven finish would be preferable to having the story cut short with Hašek’s death at age 39. I'll wrap up the book after reviewing the second Schweik movie.

Švejk retrieves Lieutenant Dub from the whorehouse
Illustration by Josef Lada
Picture source

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