Having drunk away a gift of 10 crowns instead of buying a railway ticket Private Josef Švejk, unscrupulous dog dealer, idiot savant, and thorn in the side of his superiors, sets out by foot from Tábor to České Budějovice to rejoin his battalion. Unfortunately Švejk, “[a]nd God knows how it happened, … instead of going south to Budějovice went on marching straight to the west.” Švejk’s ‘anabasis’ takes him on a 200 kilometre detour during which he is mistaken by all and sundry as a deserter and either helped or hindered by those he meets on the road. On the one hand he is given potato soup and directions by an old woman, on the other he is arrested as a Russian spy by the officious Sergeant Flanderka of the gendarmerie, before he is reunited with the 91st Regiment and the long suffering Lieutenant Lukáš.
Jaroslav Hašek’s comic creation, the idiot who is nobody’s fool, is one of the great characters of twentieth century literature. At every turn Švejk gets the better of all he meets, reducing officers to speechlessness and impotent fury, while managing to extricate himself from a litany of mistakes; missing his train, losing his way, accidentally joining the enemy, conspiring to steal Colonel Kraus’s dog and then giving it to Lieutenant Lukáš; at all times accepting his lot with a happy equanimity.
Anti-war, anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian, and anti-Catholic, Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války, to give it its full title, is the little man’s poke in the eye for pointless bureaucracy, authority without meaning, and officialdom without humanity, and a reminder to us all that compliance can be equally as subversive as opposition.
 Hašek, Jaroslav, The Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in the World War, trans. Cecil Parrott (London: Everyman’s Library, 1993), 257.
by Mike Dash
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