On this day in 1923 Jaroslav Hasek died, aged thirty-nine. Like Franz Kafka, his contemporary - both were born in 1883, and Kafka died at forty - Hasek lived in Prague and wrote of an absurdist nightmare, but the parallel doesn't go much further. Hasek was poorly educated, nomadic, unemployable, a practical joker happiest in a crowd or spotlight, and his father was the farthest thing from omnipresent. Nor did they write similarly: The Good Soldier Svejk, the satiric WWI novel that made Hasek famous, is rollicking and episodic, and few would argue that it is skillfully or even carefully written, or that it matters much that it was never finished. Kafka was thin, tubercular, reserved, and agonized by the idea of marriage; Hasek died a bigamist, and is buried behind the pub where he held forth each evening, and where he eventually drank and ate himself to death. Kafka was fastidious; Hasek was an anarchist in his personal habits as well as his politics, and apparently Czechs today still enjoy this joke from The Good Soldier Svejk: "Tidy yourself up! We might be Czechs, but we don't have to let the rest of the world know."
Given humor "on a level with Cervantes and Rabelais" (Max Brod, Kafka's friend and editor), the novel has an international readership, but it has a special, enduring appeal at home. Asked in a 2004 survey to pick their all-time favorite novel of world literature, readers in the Czech Republic ranked The Good Soldier Svejk in twelfth place. There are "Svejk-style" pubs across the country, Svejk postal stamps, Svejk statues, and Svejk images everywhere - reproductions of the character as he appeared in hundreds of illustrations done by Josef Lada for the first edition. These capture the essential, irrepressible trait of the Good Soldier, whether on the march towards or away from battle:
"Take that idiotic expression off your face."
"I can't help it," replied Svejk solemnly. "I was discharged from the army for idiocy and officially certified by a special commission as an idiot. I'm an official idiot."
Svejk's certification is the opposite given Joseph Heller's Yossarian, who can not achieve crazy status no matter what he does, but the result is the same. At every out-of-step, the Good Soldier shows his superiors to be the real fools and war to be a bad joke, one made bearable only by being embraced as such. In Part III, Svjek's military progress is such that he finds himself bound for the Front (also known as "The Great Licking"), sent off with a speech lifted from the army handbook and delivered inspirationally by the chaplain - a man who, Svejk has heard, "drivels utter bunkum." The Good Soldier is impressed with the chaplain's message, and eager to pass its comfort on to his comrades:
Won't it be marvelous when, like the chaplain said, the day draws to its close, the sun with its golden beams sets behind the mountains, and on the battlefields are heard, as he told us, the last breath of the dying, the death-rattle of the fallen horses, the groans of the wounded and the wailing of the population, as their cottages burn over their heads. I love it when people drivel utter bunkum.
In practice, Svejk's enthusiasm can be a match for any situation or rank. The officers' battle preparations include instruction on the ciphering system they will use to encode and decode messages at the Front, a complicated method using the appropriate pages of a novel they have all been issued. The demonstration session grinds to an embarrassing halt when, prompted by the observations of a brave young officer, Captain Sagner realizes the message he has proudly decoded does not exist for anyone else:
"What has happened? In my Sins of the Fathers by Ganghofer it's there and in yours it isn't?"
"Permit me, sir," Cadet Biegler began again. "May I take the liberty to draw your attention to the fact that the novel of Ludwig Ganghofer is in two parts. You can, if you wish, verify this by looking at the first title page: 'Novel in two parts.' We have Part I and you have Part II," continued the thorough-going Cadet Biegler....
Having concluded that they were too heavy, and that commanding officers could not or should not have too much time for reading, and that enlisted men could not comfortably make books do double duty in the latrine, the Good Soldier had left behind the wrong half of those novels placed in his charge.