(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Although Jaroslav Haek wrote hundreds of short stories and articles, his literary reputation rests solely on his incomplete novel The Good Soldier vejk. The novel is set during World War I and is based on Haek’s experiences as a soldier in the Austrian army.

vejk is an enigma who appears to be both a blundering idiot and a shrewd manipulator confounding whatever authority he encounters. In creating vejk, Haek may have been inspired by a short sketch that appeared in several popular journals in 1906. Both this character and Haek’s original soldier, who first appeared in a 1911 series of stories, are Czech peasants whose ignorance keeps them in constant conflict with military authority.

The first vejk was created during a period of strict censorship by the Austrian government, a fact that may account for the two-dimensionality of the character. A second series of stories published while Haek was in Russia recruiting Czech prisoners of war to fight against Austria serves as little more than anti-Austrian propaganda; the stories are humorless and the characters flat. However, the vejk of the novel is a picaresque character who recognizes that the world is absurd and that there is nothing to be done to bring order or meaning to existence.

The structure of the novel is episodic and rambling. Digressions are frequent as vejk, who repeatedly gets into trouble, explains himself through lengthy monologues only tangentially related to the situation at hand. Although vejk faces harsh treatment from his superiors, he remains cheerful, willing to undergo whatever is necessary for the protection of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He does not change as a result of his experiences, and his misadventures frequently carry him back to where he started.

This circularity is particularly evident in the chapter “vejk’s eské Budjovice anabasis.” After getting himself ejected from the train carrying his company, vejk sets out on foot to catch up with it; however, he manages always to head in the wrong direction. Throughout the last three volumes of the novel, vejk is separated from his company and its officer, Lieutenant Luka, then reunited to find that nothing has changed as the army snails its way through bureaucratic inefficiency toward the front.

When Haek died in 1923, his characters had not yet reached the battle lines; consequently, The Good Soldier vejk is an antiwar novel which does not depict combat. Still, Haek conveys the futility of war, both through the use of an omniscient narrator, who provides undisguised criticism, and through vejk and his companions. Like vejk, his fellow soldiers expect to die. One of the group is writing a history of the company’s battles before the fact, using the logic that since the outcome of war is the same—death—the experience of dying in battle must be recorded in advance.

Haek further underscores the foolishness of war by blurring the lines between allies and enemies. In the opening chapter, vejk, still a civilian, is accused of treason. When he reports for military duty while suffering from rheumatism, he is charged with disloyalty in spite of his professed willingness to serve; once he assumes active duty, he is suspected of spying and is even mistaken for a Russian prisoner of war. When asked by a cruel officer to respond to a poster depicting an Austrian soldier impaling a Russian against a wall with his bayonet, vejk sympathizes with the mortally wounded Russian and with the Austrian, who he predicts will be punished for damaging his bayonet. Austrian propaganda does not instill hatred of the enemy, only a reminder of the hostility of the military toward its own soldiers.

Haek’s satire succeeds in reaching beyond the boundaries of war, for it is ultimately the social structure that he targets. vejk’s experiences as a soldier mirror those of his civilian life, suggesting that the military is no different from other institutions. vejk’s willingness to conform allows him to survive, but at the same time, his conformity undermines authority, causing whatever...

(The entire section is 1676 words.)