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Thus Spake Schweik

NOTE: This essay was written in Prague on the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Jaroslav Hasek, author of The Good Soldier Schweik. One of Czechoslovakia’s most prominent writers, Vaculik is forbidden to publish in his own country.

Today, just as it used to be, the Prague of Kafka is haunted by, among others, the ghost of Schweik. Like many other young men, I read The Good Soldier Schweik at the appropriate age, when I was about twenty, and was simply amused. I knew nothing of the book’s fame; it would never have occurred to me to find a message in it. I took it to be the story of a somewhat stupid man who found that his stupidity, if it could be put to the right uses, opened up certain advantages; and then the uses he made of it were no longer innocent at all. Literary historians have had much to say about the way Jaroslav Hasek combined stupidity and cunning in this character, but their conclusions have scarcely improved on the reaction of Lieutenant Lucash when Schweik was assigned to his unit: “Look, Schweik, are you really such a dumb ox?”

Later on I was much surprised to learn that something called Schweikology had emerged. It was annoying to find foreigners explaining Schweik according to the Czech character or even explaining the Czech national character by reference to Schweik. This, my friends, is all wrong. The mistake is revealed in attempts such as Brecht’s to carry forward the adventures of Hasek’s hero. Schweik’s incomplete story cannot be brought to an end. He is like an ornament that used to hang over the door of the old Europe and now has been installed in an open-air museum, which we visit to enjoy Schweik’s charming idiocies.

Since World War I, three generations of readers in Czechoslovakia and throughout the world have taken pleasure in the garrulous talk of Schweik. In civil life he went from one Prague inn to another, following the promptings of his metabolism, occasionally working, carrying on his petty trade in dogs. In the army he did no more than follow orders, making an effort only to eat and drink and to avoid anything that might get him into trouble or danger. He took shelter from the surrounding brutalities, quite incapable of committing them himself. His impotence gains our sympathies, but, to be frank, he is the sort of fool we neither would, nor could, ever come to know well.

Unless, that is, those who are amused by Schweik can imagine what would happen if this “dumb ox” disappeared for a while and then one day returned as a lieutenant. An interesting idea, one might think, for writing an ending for Schweik…and that, as it happens, is the demented situation that has prevailed in Czechoslovakia for an insupportably long time and over an immense part of our lives….

Regularly, as if I were a habitué of the place, but without any of the habitué’s pleasure, I present myself at an establishment of ill fame in Prague, without having chosen to go there, and sit in the hardly sociable company of men who make me think of the face created by Joseph Lada, Schweik’s illustrator, a face which has become distinctive to a certain physical type. No risky thought has ever creased that face; from time to time I’m obliged to look into its eyes, from which come no hint of anything humorous and friendly, no sign of the smallest sympathy. The face speaks almost calmly, and although sometimes there is something to shout about I force myself to present my own immobile mask even when I want to laugh. I say “I don’t know” even when I could, without running any risk, say “I know.”

Mr. Vaculik, tell me,” said this man who has, since World War I, learned to match perfectly the colors of his jacket, shirt, and tie, and to use perfume made for men. To gain a few seconds I try to anticipate the questions that will follow: what do I do all day since I have no job; how do I live if I publish nothing; what are my contacts with Czechs who have emigrated; how do my manuscripts reach foreign countries?

What do you know about the plans for a dictionary of unpublished Czech writers by a publisher who puts out the work of exiles in Toronto?”

It is a scientific work”—my answer is ready—“which contains names and facts that could be forgotten or suppressed, but it has nothing to do with a criminal offense and so I refuse to say more about it.”

Yes, that’s what you always say; but if there’s no criminal offense, why do you refuse to talk about it?” So he asks with logic as circular as his shaved head.

This must be the fiftieth time I’ve tried to explain why I refuse to accept his competence, his legitimacy, his qualifications. Who would have imagined in the Bohemia of Schweik’s time that the police and the firemen would take it upon themselves to direct the work of artists and the thinking of scientists?

In contrast to Hasek’s Schweik, the embodiment of biological deficiency, our Schweik is incompetence personified and even institutionalized, a case of authorized ignorance. Of course this man was not feebleminded from the start, but went off the usual human path and identified himself with a role in which he could neither behave nor act differently. It is always very difficult to distinguish between his two principal characteristics—his human nature and his human function, or, perhaps better, his extra-human function.

The languages people speak today are seen as embodying the evolution of human knowledge; and by their opinions, activities, and standards people show how that knowledge has entered their thoughts. The men I talk to, by contrast, act and speak as if they had been excluded from this evolution, as if nothing had existed before them, as if we had been waiting for them to come to offer us everything that exists and above all to keep it under surveillance. Modern physics talks of “antimatter”; here is antithought. The men who sit across from me can’t grasp, for example, how I acquired the conviction that man is irreducible to the state, that the state is only an artificial and variable human institution, while ideas seeking to “reform the state” occur naturally and constantly.

One day I said to one of them: “The extent of civil liberty is not to be judged by how the state behaves toward the millions who approve of it but by how it treats, for example, ten people who disapprove of it.”

He looked at me and said nothing. I had no idea whether he comprehended what I was saying, and went on. “You understand what I mean: when everyone approves of something, liberty doesn’t manifest itself, it’s just not in question. Liberty starts just when people disapprove of something, do you follow me? And it’s precisely at that point that your repression always starts.”

He did not understand me. Probably the man never engaged in thought, neither at home after work, nor at night before going to sleep, as used to be the custom in Bohemia. He never reflected on anything he heard for the first time—since the next time he heard it, his reaction was always the same.

You’re not a member of the Union of Writers and you’re not registered with the Literary Foundation,” he said one day. “So you’re not a writer.”

Ah, if only one knew who is a writer,” I said to myself; but for a man who thinks writers can be raised like calves in the barns of the state or like policemen in special schools, one has to be more concrete. “Hasek,” I said, “wasn’t a member of the Writers Union either.”

But Hasek,” replied Schweik, “was against Austro-Hungary. You express yourself ambiguously, sometimes between the lines.”

He made me angry. I decided to shake him up with this response: “The more a work of literature lends itself to different interpretations, the more interesting it will be, the more charged with meaning; the longer it will live.”

He thought and reached out to flick the ash from his cigarette into the ashtray. “We will prevent, with all the firmness that’s required,” he said—evidently simplifying things, as if he’d had to pass up the chance to explain more fully his antiworld—“anyone from attacking the reputation of our republic.”

Thus spoke Schweik, who has fouled the air, the water, the people, the tile clay, and everything else in this country. (I’m writing this near a window looking out on the roof of a house that was repaired a few years ago, and already the gutters are full of tiles broken under their own weight.)

If the stove of Hasek’s Schweik had started to smoke, he would have asked Madame Muller to clean it. When it came to the elementary facts of life, the imbecile Schweik knew perfectly well what had to be done. Not Schweik today. When the pine forests in the central part of the country start to die because of the poisoned air, he calculates the amount of wood he will thus obtain, and how much he can get for it in Austria, and orders that the pines be replaced by birches.

When a region that has been declared a natural reserve, or a national park, has the misfortune to be visited by an idiot—but one aware of the political situation—and he finds an outcropping of coal, Schweik then opens up a mine on the very day that the decision to protect the region is to take effect. And when the atmosphere becomes thick with poisons and radiation that cause sickness and genetic defects, Schweik simply forbids people to talk about it…and instantly feels better.

When the conversation comes to an end, I can finally leave. But the man stops me at the door and asks one last question.

When did you last see your friends in Bratislava?”

I say quickly, “Two years ago.” He smiles. He knows it was last month, his wiretaps have told him so.

Good, be well,” he says with an air of good will, “and now write us something really fine. The years pass, let’s see what you can still produce.” In my place you’d no doubt think that he was being amiable. But the post-Orwell Schweik simply wants you to be aware that he knows exactly how many weeks have gone by since a piece of paper passed through your typewriter.

One day I said to him that in a certain sense, the true sense, literature has a higher place than that of governments and therefore doesn’t have to submit to their opinions, states of mind, seasonal fidgetings. History teaches us that the times always change. One has only to think of Havlicek [the great Czech satirist of the 1850s whose best work was published posthumously]. He thought for a moment before replying: “It’s possible. In that case, Mr. Vaculik, you have no luck.”

But I do recognize one point: here, where we invented Schweik, we’re condemned to relish him as well.

(Please don’t publish this in the mother tongue of Schweik!)

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