Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1045
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.
Although the book achieved popularity for its humor and acclaim for its political significance, The Good Soldier vejk has been criticized as “unliterary” because of its language and structure. The novel is written in common Czech, the everyday language of the people, rather than in the formal Czech of literature. For some native speakers, this use of the vernacular disqualifies the novel from classification as art; however, since the distinction between common and formal dialects does not translate, English speakers have not been troubled by debates over language. A more common concern is structure. The Good Soldier vejk does not employ traditional narrative structure; instead, the work is episodic, at times almost rambling. Haek’s defenders claim that the novel’s form mirrors the characterization and reinforces the book’s themes. Indeed, it can be stated that just as vejk continually thwarts the military system that would send him directly to the front, so the structure of the novel repeatedly loops back on itself. Some critics argue that any thematic significance of structure was unintentional, but the fact remains that the novel exhibits a formal pattern of advance and retreat. It is important to note that the work is incomplete, Haek having died before finishing the final two volumes. It is therefore difficult to draw conclusions about structure since the novel’s intended ending may have provided more closure and unity.
The major point of contention lies in the character of vejk. For those who view him as a blundering fool, he seems an unlikely candidate for literary immortality as a universal representation of humankind, and some Czechs have been incensed that the typical Czech has been portrayed as an idiot. Others, however, regard vejk as an ingenious survivor who represents the triumph of the individual over impersonal and oppressive systems of power. Whether the character is a fool or a genius is difficult to determine, for Haek provides little psychological insight into vejk’s motives. The character is presented almost entirely through his actions and his speech, and he repeatedly fails to explain himself to the reader.
Perhaps vejk is best understood through his adaptability. He possesses an uncanny ability to assess his situation and respond in the manner that will produce the desired result. For example, when arrested for treason, he confounds his accusers by agreeing with them, accepting their authority without question, and offering his full cooperation; as a result, he is dismissed as a lunatic and avoids imprisonment, possibly even execution. At other times, he exasperates superior officers with rambling monologues that digress to the point of absurdity; that predicament is resolved when the officer becomes sufficiently frustrated with vejk’s diversionary tales to dismiss the matter and get rid of him. Through such improvisational skills, vejk is able to extract himself from difficult situations and delay his progress toward the front.
Unlike Kafka’s characters, who react against power structures and are crushed by them, vejk works within systems, turning hierarchy and bureaucracy to his own advantage. Although a troublemaker, he is not a rebel. When he breaks rules and creates havoc, he does so by following the orders of a superior officer, often by carrying out these orders to the letter. It is those officers most representative of blind obedience to authority, such as Lieutenant Dub, who fail to recognize that it is vejk’s obedience rather than disobedience that produces chaos. Dub and those like him believe vejk to be a dodger, that is, one attempting to avoid military duty. However, while vejk successfully dodges combat he remains a loyal soldier and refuses opportunities to desert. He is, literally, the good soldier vejk. Haek has created a fictitious world in which the individual must act the fool in order to meet the demands of the government; it is the system, not the person, that suffers from patent lunacy.