Jaroslav Hašek

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Analysis: The Good Soldier vejk

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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 and more numerous than his excursions into misanthropic satire, wherein the little guy becomes a target as well. This notwithstanding, it would be a grave mistake to portray Haek as a champion of the downtrodden—he is far too cynical for that. Nevertheless, that is precisely what the literary establishments in Czechoslovakia and other Communist countries did. They declared Haek to be an “exemplary novelist of the proletariat, despite occasional ideological errors.” Although Haek’s political sympathies might support this view, a close reading of his novel does nothing of the sort. On the contrary, as the famous Czech novelist Milan Kundera has suggested, it is Haek’s “blasphemy”—that is, his misanthropic satire—that is often overlooked and deserves to be studied and noticed more.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire is no more; it was already gone at the time of the writing of the novel. This means that the satiric attacks aimed at the empire, the imperial court, and so on were even then less important to the author than the catalog of stupidity that he found flourishing in the military milieu. It is the...

(This entire section contains 1025 words.)

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atmosphere of the crisis, of the war, of tremendous stress on the individual that reveals best the real qualities of human beings. The novel also evokes the mood of disillusionment following the terrible clash of the idealistic expectations of the nineteenth century with the reality of mass murder engineered on a gigantic scale in World War I.

One should not forget that the great formative period of Haek’s life was spent in revolutionary Russia, where he witnessed the blood, famine, and pestilence of the new Leviathan. This, too, may have contributed to his doubts about the ability of humans to order their affairs rationally or to bring about true freedom, as he, when he was a young anarchist, once envisioned it.

Haek was a natural comic; his comic genius is apparent in the many stories that he wrote for the newspapers in his youth. He always found it easy to laugh at the world, to look at the comical side, resolutely rejecting the serious approach to life, refusing the responsibility often asked of him. In addition to this proven natural comic ability, however, it is possible to witness in his fiction the development of a sophisticated artist.

The true value of the art that Haek’s comedy represents can easily be measured through comparison of Haek’s novel with his two previous attempts to write about vejk. In none of the stories written in 1911 or in 1917 does one encounter the ambiguous and accomplished raconteur and trickster vejk of the great novel. All of these attempts seem heavy-handed; they lack the highly successful amalgam of two kinds of satires, the political and the misanthropic, achieved only in Haek’s masterpiece.

Although the public success of the novel was immediate, critical acclaim came slowly; when it arrived, however, it elevated Haek to the first rank of comic geniuses. Critics have acknowledged the ambiguities in Haek’s work and the disturbing question of his misanthropy, but these have been judged of lesser importance when compared with the significance of Haek’s inventiveness, his imagination, and his playful exploitation of language for the purposes of comedy. It is fair to say that, at best, Haek’s comedy transcends the narrowly partisan limits that are suggested in some of his more heavy-handed writing and takes its rightful place next to the works of Miguel de Cervantes and François Rabelais in literature, and those of Molière and Charles Chaplin in the broader area of the art of comedy.

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Hašek, Jaroslav