Jaroslav Haek was too controversial to be accepted as a great writer in his time. His great unfinished masterpiece, The Good Soldier vejk, sharply divided critics into those who rejected him (most of the literary establishment) and those who understood the originality and comic genius of the novel. Among the latter belonged Max Brod, the biographer of Franz Kafka, and Ivan Olbracht, a noted novelist. Indeed, the biggest spurt toward the worldwide renown of the novel came from Prague’s German community following Grete Rainer’s German translation in 1926. The novel then established its reputation in Europe as an antimilitarist satire and as a great comic novel. A film version of the novel, Der brave Soldat Schwejk, was produced in Germany in 1960 and released in the United States in 1963 as The Good Soldier Schweik.
Haek’s main achievement lies in the combination of two kinds of satire: on one hand, topical, historical, political satire of the Austro-Hungarian military machinery; on the other, satire of human nature. This satire is communicated through a unique and sometimes enigmatic character, Josef vejk, whose stories manifest a distillation of popular wisdom used as a weapon against the inimical environment.
Haek’s influence on the subsequent development of Czech prose has been overwhelming and not always salutary. Haek’s humor at its most subtle is inimitable and wholly his own; superficial adaptations fall flat. Haek’s book does not have a rival in its genre in the twentieth century; the closest equivalent (though distant in time and in its concept of comedy) might be Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen’s Der abenteuerliche Simplicissimus (1669; The Adventurous Simplicissimus, 1912). The appearance of direct descendants of The Good Soldier vejk (as in Bertolt Brecht’s play Schweyk im zweiten Weltkrieg, pr. 1957) and indirect traces in the works of satirists as diverse as Joseph Heller (in his Catch-22, 1961) and Vladimir Voinovich (in his Chonkin books) reveals the enduring influence of Haek’s masterpiece.