Jaroslav Hašek (1973 [?])The Good Soldier Švejk, translation from the Czech by Cecil Parrot and the original illustrations by Joseph Lada.

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The Good Soldier Svejk like author Jaroslav Hasek, as their names indicates was  a Slav and Czech serving in the 91st Infantry Regiment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when they still had an empire, at the beginning of the First World War.  It’s not All Quiet on the Western Front, because for one thing it’s the Eastern Front and the Russians are the immediate enemies.  Svejk’s not sure how to get there, who they are fighting or the reasons why. He’s an eternal optimist and hopeless buffoon, which makes him the mirror of a The Good Soldier depending on whom looks into his simple face. He always carries out orders and does what he’s told, but when no official or officer is sure what they’re doing either Svejk often ends up metaphorically and literally walking in circles as he does in his putative journey to meet up with the 91st Regiment at Budejovice.

‘Forward the brave!’ said the good soldier Svejk to himself. ‘Duty calls. I must get to Budejovice.

But by an unfortunate chance instead of going from Protovin south to Budejovice Svejk directed his steps to the north towards Pisek…

‘Jesus Christ,’ sighed Svejk. ‘Here I am back in Putin where I slept in a haystack’.

That’s where I stopped reading. Just after book 1. The Good Soldier Swejk began as a series of newspaper articles illustrated by Josef Lada. And the characterisation can be cartoonish, but ironically the situations more real. There’s no doubting that a good officer had the perfect moral duty to beat his batman to death to enforce discipline and doing so twice was to be commended. And military doctors had a perfect moral duty to root out malingerers that feigned blindness and deafness and having only one leg by starving and beating and forced purgings which killed many and cured other.

Look at the central character Count Pyotr “Pierre” Kirillovich Bezukhov is in Leo Tolstoy’s  Napoleonic novel War and Peace and you will find many of the same traits. Indeed, at the end of this epic ‘Pierre’ boasts that he is no longer the same man, he no longer beats his servants, even though it’s long overdue and deserved. It’s a class thing.

The Good Soldier Svejk is an everyman soldier that gets on with everybody and nothing surprises him and for every story being told he adds ten taller tales of his own. In the end I found the poor, simple, buffoon wearisome as the bureaucracies and officials he faces, but that may say more about me than Jaroslav Hasek’s character and how stupid the First World War was for every side on the Western and Eastern fronts.

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