One hundred years ago, writer Jaroslav Hašek published a novel whose main character was one Josef Švejk. This ordinary soldier remarks on the absurdity of the First World War and mocks the military machine. Humour, political satire, but also his attempts to defy the will of bureaucracy are all still appreciated to this day by readers in both Europe and abroad.
ENGAGED BY GODThe first part of the four-part novel, The Good Soldier Švejk: And His Fortunes in the World War, was published in 1921 and did not seem destined to become a literary hit. The quirky protagonist offended readers because he not only spoke very critically about his superiors, but also about politics. Yet it did not take long for his uniquely specific humour and the irony of this literary work to gain fans all over the world. The author of the book was born in 1883 in Prague. He changed a number of occupations, but eventually became famous as a journalist writing for Czech dailies and weeklies. He was not only inspired by everyday life in the city, but also by various escapades, which he experienced in cafés and inns. In 1911, Jaroslav Hašek founded the Party of Moderate Progress within the Limits of the Law, which was a platform to parody the then electoral conditions, public and political life, and acted as its candidate.
SMART FOOLAfter the outbreak of the First World War, Hašek had to enlist and went to the Galician front in Russia, where he fell into captivity. Shortly afterwards, he joined the Czechoslovak legions, joined the Red Army and adopted socialist views. In 1920, he came to Prague and resumed his bohemian way of life and began working on Švejk. The first volume was published in 1921 and other works followed until 1923. Till this day, readers and literary experts alike ponder on how to go about characterising the protagonist. Some think he is a fool, while others say his stupidity is only a pretence. In any case, Švejk can find his bearings in any situation, and on account of this, the word “švejkování” has been coined, which is used to speak of someone pretending not to understand orders and trying to twist out of them in any way possible.
A WAR SATIREThe famous novel was published in 58 languages and there are films, theatre and radio adaptations. Each reading community perceives the main character from a different perspective. “Hašek’s novel is the most famous and most frequently published Czech book. It was first published here in the 1960s and not only captivated its readers with humour, but also provided readers with a wealth of information about the First World War, which the Spaniards did not partake in. The oldest generation of readers also perceives some historical analogies. Švejk makes fun of militarism, and so do Spaniards who associate this reaction with the Franco regime”, says Stanislav Škoda, director of the Czech Centre Madrid.
A DIFFERENT ANGLEHašek’s novel is received differently in Germany, where the first translation was published in 1926. Its author was Grete Reiner-Straschnow-Stein. The German translator lived in Prague and knew the author’s environment very well. “Stein created a specific language, which unfortunately makes Švejk a much more ridiculous character than in the Czech original. It was not until 2014 that a new translation by Antonín Brousek was published, and thanks to this, German readers were able to get acquainted with the ‘real’ Švejk”, explains Frances Jackson, the literary editor of the Czech Centre in Munich, who is the author of the online discussion: Winter with Švejk.
A MOCKERY OF COMMANDSThe Czech soldier also has fans in the Far East. In Japan, for instance, Švejk was first published in 1930. “For Japanese readers, it is primarily a humorous anti-war novel based on a German translation. Švejk is perceived as a good-humoured person who mocks his superiors. And by the way, during the Second World War, the publication of Hašek’s book was forbidden, just as no other foreign-language books were allowed to be published. The main emphasis was on everything Japanese”, says expert on Japanese culture Petr Holý, adding that the story of an ordinary Czech soldier resonates on many levels in the literary world precisely because it provides a universal mirror to the absurdity of war.
Švejk played an interesting role in Korea. The translation of Hašek’s novel, The Good Soldier Švejk: And His Fortunes in the World War, became, in 1983, the first purely Korean translation of a Czech work. Translator Kang Hung Ju, a professor of Russian literature at the Korean University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, probably used both the Czech original and as well as the German translation.