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…

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