The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hašek
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek.
Translated by Cecil Parrott.
This book was recommended by a friend of mine who come from Russia and had previously read a translation in Russian, which I can only guess might be closer to the native language. The recommendation came in part because my family originates from the same country as the author.
The Hard book volume I have contains the full volume in 4 parts and 800 pages that ends incomplete because of the authors death. Even though incomplete the work still stands well as it is and doesn't disappoint. It may well have inspired me to go on and read Memoirs of Jacques Casanova de Seingalt 1725-1798 which also is incomplete for a number of reasons, although it's much much much longer when you find the entire set.
When I searched it out I found this volume translated by Cecil Parrott it promised to have the entire volume as written by Jaroslav Hasek up to his untimely death. Cecil Parrott's credentials seem quite impressive and I felt that the closest translation I might get, that I could read, might well be this one.
I believe Parrott does well in that the best recollections I can obtain from my friend as I read through seem to be as narrowly close to what he remembers. The reason for the need for a clear translation is that this is a darkly satirical work that pokes fun not so much at the first world war as it does at the political structure that brought it about and then goes on to poke at the intelligence structure of the military that seems at most times to bumble through the entire mess at the expense of the foot soldiers who seem to be considered of less value and worth to them than their counterparts in the enemies advancing columns.
Even so Cecil Parrott himself admits there are some parts that are difficult at best to translate that may often take the bite out of the humor. Much of this seems to be in the translation of many of the couched insults that are passed between the various languages that are showcased from the ethnic backgrounds of the surrounding theater of war. These are things that may not even travel that well between the original and the Russian translation and require extensive discussion to begin to get the feel of them.
What does translate through though is the irreverence for the church and clergy and perhaps this stands well as one of those works that best describes the disparity between piety in like religions on both side of a war. Religions that seem to collude in treating foot-soldiers as though they are the worst of heathens leading to the ridiculousness of trying to reconcile how they can believe they will win the war with gods help while employing heathens. Their reasoning only becomes clear as I understand that it's because the the true heathens are the ones giving the troops gods blessing.
There have been comparisons of this work to Joseph Heller's Catch 22 that I might differ with. I will admit that there seems to be some credibility to the claim that Joseph Heller was inspired by this book. Where The Good Soldier Svejk might be a dark satire of the first world war it does not seem to endeavor to shock as much as Heller's Catch 22. And I did not feel as close a touch with the culture and world of world war 2 in Catch 22 as I felt viewing the landscape of world war 1 in The Good Soldier Svejk.
I felt the satire of Catch 22 was more in line with contemporaries such as the film Dr. Strangelove in its darkness but less absurd than Dr. Strangelove. The satire of The Good Soldier Svejk is a different animal that though dark it seems more lighthearted than Catch 22 and though in many cases it showcases the ridiculous it is not quite as absurd as Dr. Strangelove. I can attribute that in part to the nature of the character Svejk.
Svejk is a simple man who is somehow complex while being considered an imbecile by those around him. What is the most interesting in his character is that as he goes through life he seems to just float around with tides of events that shape his life as though he has few cares in the world. But, it's the stories that he feels so free about telling that make this man understandable to me. He is full of analogues and honestly some of them I didn't quite always catch the point or at least how that point was supposed to be highlighting the subject matter that brought it on. In his forward Cecil Parrott does admit that while translating the book he felt that the authors narrative often digressed and that might be attributed to his heavy drinking while writing. If there is merit to that I would suggest that there might be a number of the analogues that grew out of that as much as they came from necessity of Svejk to make a point.
The one troublesome thing to me was that for some reason I felt the analogues belonged to Svejk and unfortunately there are a few other characters who were allowed to go off on a tangent now and then.
Svejk's story begins when he is in a public establishment expressing his view that the assassination of Ferdinand was going to lead to war- this declaration along with other too free speech leads to his arrest. Along with several others who are similarly awaiting conviction for crimes against the monarchy.
Eventually, and even though he physically is unsound, he's inducted into the army. This takes a circuitous route through the medical community of the times, whose job seems to be to uncover every fraudulent illness in all the shirkers at whatever means possible including various forms of torture.
Svejk doesn't seem at most times to care where he ends up in the system and he seems more interested in consoling himself with his own analogies. For this he is considered an idiot and an imbecile. But, clearly all of the people around him seem to be comedic caricatures that might mirror some of the people that Hasek has run across in his own life. Their absurdness is drawn out to a point of the ridiculous to demonstrate how that contributes to the inefficiency of the command staff in charge of the army.
I found the first part and the last part the most interesting, which in a way contained the disappointment that the last part is incomplete. The middle two parts are mostly the long route taken to get to the front where the battle is. There is a lot of detail about the conditions of the country at that time and the accessibility of provisions for the troops and the problem of morale and morals within the ranks. Svejk a few times uses the phrase six of one half dozen of another, which prompted me to look up the etymology of the phrase and find it's possible it was an exact translation. The reason I mention this is because often in the story the people caught between the troops in the war may have thought of each sides presence in their province in that six of one half a dozen of the other way. Conditions were poor and often it seemed to be in part because of the incompetence of the military and though I only saw the military of one side it might be easy to translate this assessment over to the other side in this tale.
I enjoyed this book and much if not all of the humor made it through; even through my thick self. Anyone who enjoys historical novels and loves satires and can enjoy dark humor which to some may not seem like humor at all then this book will entertain. If the reader is like myself it will take a few days to a week or two to trudge through. There was a possibility that some of the flavor of the humor was seasoned by contact with the British humor of the translator so perhaps someone of that ilk might be able to steer through the murky water a bit more quickly. All in all I'd recommend this translation to all who are forced by necessity and perhaps their own laziness to read it in English. You won't be forced to read it as it does entertain.
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