Perhaps all of you know the satirical story of the brave soldier Svejk and his adventures: the funny guy who makes his way trough the perils of the war with a smile, big loud mouth, unquenchable thirst for beer and great appetite. Some call Jaroslav Hasek’s unfinished novel anarchic fatalism, other critics label it as dark satire; some people love it for its fresh and somewhat rough prose, pretenseless humor, while others outright bash it for depicting a mediocre character with whom they dissociate. The book has influenced not just readers but also other writers, undeniably Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 who personally admits he would have not written his piece if he had not read Hasek’s novel. A comic masterpiece, it not only left its imprint in so many people, it is way more than this.
The picaresque novel, although seemingly innocent, turned quite provocative. History reminds us that the book has been banned not only from the Czechoslovakian army libraries in 1925, but later also withheld in Poland and, consequently censored in Bulgaria for years to come, it also fed the monstrous bonfires of Nazi Germany. Perhaps, the authorities saw a real danger and threat in the story of a man who finds his way to his own freedom and survival trough the labyrinths of bureaucracy and the dangers of war and foreign occupation with a smile and calm persistence, often playing dumb and being considered outright idiot. Svejk would always find excuses and start telling a funny story right in the middle of a dangerous situation or a grand mess that he himself created.
The truth is that Svejk is not just a random fiction personality, but a real Czech national character. He doesn’t represent a single person: he stands for the nation’s resistance against the atrocities of war and occupation. There is no other way to explain how such quite simple persona did have such an impact in history with references ’till today and his name becoming used as an adjective to mean opposition and non-compliance, or even verbalized: for instance, after the the famous Prague Spring, the General Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party who replaced the reformer Alexander Dubcek, told the people in the late seventies to “stop Svejking!”.
Svejk manages to go through all the life threatening conditions with a smile on his round face. But even if you look down on him as slightly superficial and quite mediocre man, Svejk is indeed a great person and his message is astounding. Svejk is an archetype in a line of Czech dissidents that we can trace to Vaclav Havel and Jan Palach.
Understanding Svejk’s character is key to understanding a great part of Czech people’s psychology: the specific sense of humor, the non-violent opposition to oppression and the light attitude to life’s perils. Undoubtedly this has made Svejk a national hero of sorts. And just like there are movies to watch before visiting Prague it’s highly recommendable that you read at least a bit of Svejk so that if you happen to be in a situation that puzzles you for its absurdity, you could try to think “what would Svejk do?” and get out of it with a smile!