Jaroslav Haek, creator of the best-known character in Czech literature, was, like his character, a troublemaker. Haek’s penchant for participating in radical politics and for instigating public hoaxes rendered him nearly unemployable. For that reason, he turned to freelance writing to earn a living and produced hundreds of articles and short stories, including several about Josef vejk, an early version of the title character of the later novel.
After being drafted to serve in the Austrian army during World War I, Haek was sent to the front, where he was quickly taken prisoner by the Russians. He volunteered to serve in a Czech-Slovak unit of the Russian army, became a supporter of the Bolshevik movement, and returned to Prague in 1920 to help establish the party in the newly formed Republic of Czechoslovakia. The Russians eventually abandoned their efforts. Haek began work on The Good Soldier vejk in 1921, basing the book largely on his war experiences.
Although the novel was well received by German critics such as Max Brod, who had helped to establish Franz Kafka’s literary reputation, Czech critics were much less enthusiastic, a reaction, in part, to Haek’s reputation as an irresponsible drunkard and a Russian sympathizer. Throughout the twentieth century, critical response reflected changing political conditions in Europe, and the novel, while soon regarded as a classic, remained controversial. The book was burned by the Nazis, who found in vejk’s disruptive nature a threat to the conformity and discipline demanded by the fascist state. Their censorship drew international attention to the novel, however, and redeemed its reputation with earlier detractors. When the Communists gained control of Czechoslovakia following World War II, the government officially declared vejk a national folk hero and a member of the proletariat and potential revolutionary for the Communist cause. At the same time, political dissidents embraced the novel because of vejk’s ability to undermine authority. By the mid-twentieth century, The Good Soldier vejk had gained an international reputation as a powerful antiwar novel, and by the latter part of the century, Haek was recognized as a major Czech writer who worked in the tradition of Czech satire, used elements of national folk tales, and influenced the development of Czech theater and such writers as Václav Havel. Haek is also often compared with Kafka, a Prague contemporary whose writings explore the theme of conflict between the individual and society.
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