Jaroslav Haek’s The Good Soldier vejk had its genesis in 1911, the time of the publication of the first of his vejk stories; in a broader sense, his preparation for the work included his whole conscious life. One way to look at his masterpiece is to see it as a compendium of almost three hundred stories told by vejk and other characters.
The type of story that one finds in the novel is usually likened to a “pub story” (die Gasthausgeschichte). It is of anecdotal construction and is often produced as an illustration of some thought, as support for some opinion, or, apologetically, as justification of a certain kind of behavior. There is, however, one important modification in Haek’s story that sets it apart from a common anecdote. A successful anecdote is characterized by a construction in which the “story” moves swiftly toward its “point,” with minimal hindrance and no digressions. Not so with Haek’s tale—in this story, it is the digression, the often irrelevant detail, the play on words, the humorous inventiveness that is characteristic.
The fact that the novel is a collection of so many stories has no effect on its unity. Most of the stories come from the main character, vejk, and they always serve to illustrate a particular point of the main and rather skeletal plot. The plot itself can be summarized briefly: Josef vejk, who has been making a living by selling dogs whose pedigrees he often forged and who has been certified by the military as an imbecile, is drafted in World War I and transported to the front. vejk never sees combat, as the writing of the fourth volume, which would have taken him to the front line, was interrupted by Haek’s death. It is to Haek’s credit that he could flesh out this austere plot with vivacity and excitement, mostly derived from humor surrounding vejk, coming either from the descriptions of vejk’s activities or from the stories vejk and other characters recount.
Another integrating element of the novel is satire. The Good Soldier vejk is a satiric novel, perhaps the greatest satiric novel written in the twentieth century. The subgenre in which it could be classified is that of antimilitarist satire, though it is mixed with another type of satire: the satire of human nature, or misanthropic satire. The success of the novel can be attributed to the mixture of these two kinds of satire; each type strengthens the other.
Haek’s salvos against the high and mighty are more pronounced...
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