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The Good Soldier vejk

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Wikipedia article

'The Good Soldier vejk' (; ), also spelled 'Schweik' or 'Schwejk', is the abbreviated title of a unfinished satirical/dark comedy novel by Jaroslav Haek. It was illustrated by Josef Lada and recently also by Petr Urban. The original Czech title of the work is 'Osudy dobrho vojka vejka za svtov vlky', literally 'The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier vejk During the World War'. He has become the Czech national personification.

Haek originally intended 'vejk' to cover a total of six volumes, but had completed only three (and started on the fourth) upon his death from heart failure on January 3 1923.


The novel is set during World War I in Austria-Hungary, a multi-ethnic empire full of long-standing tensions. Fifteen million people died in the War, one million of them Austro-Hungarian soldiers of whom around 140,000 were Czechs. Jaroslav Haek participated in this conflict and examined it in 'The Good Soldier vejk'.

Many of the situations and characters seem to have been inspired, at least in part, by Haek's service in the 91st Infantry Regiment of the Austro-Hungarian Army. However, the novel also deals with broader anti-war themes: essentially a series of absurdly comic episodes, it explores both the pointlessness and futility of conflict in general and of military discipline, Austrian military discipline, in particular. Many of its characters, especially the Czechs, are participating in a conflict they do not understand on behalf of a country to which they have no loyalty.

The character of Josef vejk is a development of this theme. Through possibly-feigned idiocy or incompetence he repeatedly manages to frustrate military authority and expose its stupidity in a form of passive resistance: the reader is left unclear, however, as to whether vejk is genuinely incompetent, or acting quite deliberately with dumb insolence. These absurd events reach a climax when vejk, wearing a Russian uniform, is mistakenly taken prisoner by his own troops.

In addition to satirising Habsburg authority, Haek repeatedly sets out corruption and hypocrisy attributed to priests of the Catholic Church.

Plot summary

The story begins in Prague with news of the assassination in Sarajevo that precipitates World War I.

vejk displays such enthusiasm about faithfully serving the Austrian Emperor in battle that no one can decide whether he is merely an imbecile or is craftily undermining the war effort. However, he is arrested by a member of the secret police, Bretschneider, after making some politically sensitive remarks, and is sent to prison. After being certified insane he is transferred to a madhouse, before being ejected.

vejk gets his charwoman to wheel him (he claims to be suffering from rheumatism) to the recruitment offices in Prague, where his apparent zeal causes a minor sensation. Unfortunately, he is transferred to a hospital for malingerers because of his rheumatism. He finally joins the army as batman to army chaplain Otto Katz; Katz loses him at cards to Lieutenant Luk, whose batman he then becomes. Luk is posted with his march battalion to barracks in esk Budjovice, in Southern Bohemia, preparatory to being sent to the front. After missing the train to Budjovice, vejk embarks on a long anabasis on foot around Southern Bohemia in a vain attempt to find Budjovice, before being arrested as a possible spy and deserter (a charge he strenuously denies) and escorted to his regiment. He is then promoted to company orderly.

The unit embarks on a long train journey towards Galicia and the Eastern Front. Stopping in a town on the border between Austria and Hungary, in which relations between the two nationalities are somewhat sensitive, vejk is again arrested, this time for causing an affray involving a respectable Hungarian citizen and engaging in a street fight. After a further long journey and close to the front line, vejk is taken prisoner by his own side as a suspected Russian deserter, after arriving at a lake and trying on an abandoned Russian uniform. Narrowly avoiding execution, he manages to rejoin his unit. The unfinished novel breaks off abruptly before vejk has a chance to be involved in any combat or enter the trenches, though it appears Haek may have conceived that the characters would have continued the war in a POW camp, much as he had done.

The book also includes a very large number of anecdotes told by vejk (usually either to deflect the attentions of an authority figure, or to insult them in a concealed manner) which are not directly related to the plot.

Selected characters

The characters of 'The Good Soldier vejk' generally either are used as the butt of Haek's absurdist humour or represent fairly broad social and ethnic stereotypes found in the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time. People are often distinguished by the dialect and register of Czech or German they speak, a quality that does not translate easily. Many German- and Polish-speaking characters, for example, are shown as speaking comedically broken or heavily accented Czech, while many Czechs speak broken German; much use is also made of slangy expressions.

Some characters seem to have been partly based on real people serving with the Imperial and Royal 91st Infantry Regiment, in which Haek served as a one-year volunteer.

;Josef vejk: The novel's hero: in civilian life a dealer in stolen dogs.

;Palivec: The foul-mouthed landlord of vejk's local pub - the "U Kalicha" on Na Bojiti street, Prague. Palivec is eventually arrested by Bretschneider (see below) after commenting that flies shit on the pub's portrait of Franz Joseph I of Austria.

;Bretschneider: A secret policeman for the Austro-Hungarian government, who repeatedly tries to catch vejk and others out on their anti-monarchist views. Is eventually eaten by his own dogs, after buying a succession of animals from vejk in an attempt to incriminate him.

;Staff Warder Slavk: A cruel and corrupt prison official (revealed to have himself ended up in prison under the Republic of Czechoslovakia).

;Chaplain Otto Katz: Katz is an army chaplain with a fondness for drinking, especially good communion wine, and gambling. vejk seems fond of Katz, but the latter loses the services of vejk to Lieutenant Luk in a game of cards.

;Lieutenant Luk: vejk's long-suffering company commander. A Czech from South Bohemia, Luk is something of a womanizer but is depicted in a broadly sympathetic manner by Haek (the records of the real-life 91st Regiment show an 'Oberleutnant' Rudolf Luk (the same rank as the character) at the time of Haek's service; Haek admired Luk and even wrote him a number of poems).Parrott, C. "Introduction" to 'The Good Soldier Svejk', Penguin, 1974, p.xi Though vejk's actions eventually lead to Luk being labelled as a notorious philanderer in the Hungarian national press, he starts to miss vejk after the latter is promoted to company orderly.

;Colonel Friedrich Kraus von Zillergut: An idiotic Austrian officer with a penchant for giving his colleagues long-winded, moronic explanations of everyday objects (such as thermometers and postage stamps) and situations; run over by a cart while attempting to demonstrate what a pavement is. Kraus's dog is stolen by vejk as a gift to Luk; the enraged colonel subsequently arranges Luk's transfer to the front.

;Captain Sagner: One of the regiment's professional officers and commander of vejk's march battalion; an ambitious careerist, he is later revealed to have been a closet Czech patriot in his youth. A Captain Sagner appears to have served in the 91st Regiment, where he was Haek's battalion commander.

;Colonel Schrder: The bad-tempered colonel of vejk's regiment, and a caricature of the typical German-speaking senior officers of the Austro-Hungarian army.

;Jurajda: The battalion's spiritualist cook; before military service he had edited an "occultist" journal. Spends time attempting to avoid frontline service through letters he is writing to his wife, in which he details meals he is intending to cook for senior officers.

;2nd Lieutenant Dub: Dub is a Czech schoolmaster, officer of the reserve, and commander of the battalion's 3rd company: he has strongly monarchist views. As a conservative, pro-Habsburg Czech, Dub is the subject of some of Haek's most vicious satire. Repeatedly placed in humiliating situations, such as being found drunk in a brothel or falling off a horse (in all Slavonic languages the word 'dub' ('oak') itself is a common synonym for a dull, idiotic person). Is said to have been based on a lieutenant of the reserve, Mechalek, who served in Haek's regiment.

;Quartermaster Sergeant-Major Vank: Another recurring character, Vank (a chemist from Kralupy nad Vltavou in civilian life) is an example of an easy-going but self-serving senior NCO, whose main concern is to make his own existence as comfortable as possible.

;Volunteer Marek: The character of one-year volunteer Marek is to some degree a self-portrait by the author, who was himself a one-year volunteer in the 91st. For example, Marek  like Haek  was fired from the editorship of a natural history magazine after writing articles about imaginary animals. Is appointed the battalion historian by Sagner and occupies himself with devising memorable and heroic deaths in advance for his colleagues.

;Vodika: A sapper friend of vejk noted mainly for his extreme hatred of Hungarians, which leads to an unfortunate incident in Bruck an der Leitha.

;Cadet Biegler: Biegler is a young junior officer with pretensions to nobility, despite being the middle-class son of a furrier. Biegler takes his military duties so seriously he is ridiculed even by his senior officers, and is mistakenly hospitalised as a "carrier of cholera germs" after medical staff misdiagnose (for army PR purposes) a cognac-induced hangover.

;Captain Tayrle: The brigade adjutant and a particularly disgusting example of a headquarters officer, whose interests appear to lie mainly in crude jokes and sampling of local prostitutes.

;General Fink von Finkenstein: An aristocratic, vicious and near-insane senior Austrian officer and commander of the garrison fort of Przemyl, Fink treats his men with extreme brutality. Almost succeeds in having vejk executed after the latter is taken prisoner by his own side.

;Chaplain Martinec: A chaplain plagued by drink-induced spiritual doubts, whose attempt to provide spiritual consolation to vejk ends in disaster.

;"Sergeant Teveles": A man in possession of a silver Military Merit Medal, purchased from a Bosnian, and claiming to be a Sergeant Teveles, who had previously disappeared along with the entire 6 March Company during fighting in Belgrade.

;Baloun: A miller from esk Krumlov in civilian life, and vejk's successor as Luk's batman, Baloun is a glutton and is regularly punished for stealing Luk's food. Will eat raw dough, sausage skins, etc., when nothing else is available.

Literary significance and criticism

A number of literary critics consider 'The Good Soldier vejk' to be one of the first anti-war novels, predating Remarque's 'All Quiet on the Western Front'. Furthermore, Joseph Heller said that if he had not read 'The Good Soldier vejk', he would never have written his novel 'Catch-22'.

Broader cultural influence

The idiocy/subversion of vejk has entered the Czech language in the form of words such as 'vejkovina' ("vejking"), 'vejkovat' ("to vejk"), 'vejkrna' (military absurdity), etc.

Peter Sellers in his movie 'A Shot in the Dark', uses two comic extracts from vejk. From the overbearing general, "You know what a road is? - simplistic overstatement, and poor Lieutenant Luk in despair to vejk, "I should have shot you  who would have said anything ? who ?", (this was put to Clouseau by Captain Dreyfuss in the movie).


, Poland

vejk is the subject of films, plays, an opera, a musical, comic books, and statueseven the theme of restaurants in a number of European countries.

* 1935: Arthur Koestler mentions in his autobiography that in 1935 he was commissioned by Willy Mnzenberg, the Comintern propagandist, to write a novel called 'The Good Soldier Schweik Goes to War Again'. He adds that the project was cancelled by the Communist Party when half the book had been written due to what they termed the book's "pacifist errors".

* 1943: Bertolt Brecht writes 'Schweik in the Second World War', a play which continues the adventures of vejk into World War II.

* 1955: The Czech animator Ji Trnka adapts the novel as an animated film with Jan Werich starring as the narrator.

* 1956 and 1957: Czech film director Karel Stekl depicts the adventures of vejk in two films, starring Rudolf Hrunsk as the title character.

* 1957: Robert Kurka writes an opera based on the novel.

* 1960: In West Germany the book was adapted to 'The Good Soldier Schweik' starring Heinz Rhmann.[http://www.zenny.com/svejkcentral/Film%20Versions.html vejk Central, film versions]

* 1972: A 13-part TV series in German, 'Die Abenteuer des braven Soldaten Schwejk', directed by Wolfgang Liebeneiner, is made and broadcast by the Austrian state TV (ORF). The title role is played by Fritz Muliar.

* 1986: Czechoslovakian puppetoon version 'Osudy dobrho vojka vejka' appears.

* 2002: Sotha of the Caf de la Gare writes a play, 'Le Brave Soldat Chvk s'en va au Ciel' [The Good Soldier Schweik goes to Heaven], based on novel.[http://www.lexpress.fr/culture/scene/theatre/30-ans-toutes-ses-dents_498236.html 30th Anniversary of Caf de la Gare], L'Express, August 15, 2002, (in French)

* 2008: BBC Radio 4 broadcasts a two-part radio adaptation starring Sam Kelly.[http://www.thewestmorlandgazette.co.uk/leisure/3831036.TV_star_Sam_Kelly_plays_a_central_role_in_new_BBC_Radio_4_play/ TV star Sam Kelly plays a central role in new BBC Radio 4 play], The Westmorland Gazette, November 8, 2008The Good Soldier Svejk, episodes [http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00ffw77 1] and [http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00fkgnj 2]

Translations and adaptations

Three major English-language translations of 'vejk' have been published:

* 'The Good Soldier Schweik', tr. Paul Selver, 1930.

* 'The Good Soldier Svejk and His Fortunes in the World War', tr. Cecil Parrott, 1973; reprints: ISBN 0-14-018274-8 & ISBN 978-0-14-044991-4.

* 'The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Svejk During the World War', tr. Zdenk Sadlon, in three volumes.[http://www.zenny.com The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Svejk During the World War]'

The first translation does not give a full impression of Haek's original. Whole passages are missing (such as the famous imaginary-animals passage on the Animal World Magazine, and the whole of Volume 4 after vejk's capture as a Russian), various passages are bowdlerised, and the style is somewhat stifling and unimaginative, contrary to the language used by Haek.

There is also an orchestral suite[http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0000049LN The Good Soldier Overture] and an opera,[https://www.cedillerecords.org/062.html The Good Soldier Schweik] both for wind ensemble, written by Robert Kurka, as well as a stage adaptation, Svejk, by Colin Teevan.

See also

* Czech literature

* Ivan Chonkin, a Soviet vejk

* Mandel Karlsson

* Austro-Hungarian Army


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