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The Relevance of a Soldier | Extended Review

Book Review of The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek

By Cole Rashid Michelon

Rating: 3.5/5

Image: jarmoluk on Pixabay

The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek (1921-1923) is a morbidly satirical story about a Czech solder named Švejk who is perfectly enthusiastic about fighting in the Austria-Hungary war, where the novel takes place.

The story follows Švejk through an incredible number of absurd situations, from which he comes out mostly unscathed. Jaroslav Hašek manipulates his medium in such a way that one cannot help but laugh with concern for Švejk while at the same time feeling a profound fondness for his stupidity. With that being said, while an entertaining novel, I cannot recommend reading it.

Before we come to understand why The Good Soldier Švejk is unreadable in its current state,

I would like to appeal to the fact that the book has criticisms relevant to today’s society. For

example, Hašek intended The Good Soldier Švejk to be a work that mainly criticises the

military. He does this by subtly using irony to engage the audience. Hašek assumes the

audience understands that the hypocrisy shown by the military is a genuine criticism of how the

ones with substantial power fail to comply with the standards forced on those of

lower rank. He has numerous examples of this as he writes about commanders going to

brothels, being seen in ragged uniforms, and getting embarrassingly drunk only to

criticise cadets for not standing with their heels together.

We can see a parallel to politics today and how the people in power tend not to practise what they preach.

A prime example being Rishi Sunak and how he preaches about how people who evade taxes have done horrible wrong, while his millionaire wife has allegedly been avoiding taxes for years. Sunak has naturally profited from this. This is a prime example of how The Good Soldier Švejk is an incredibly enjoyable, funny and deep read.

However, while I believe in Hašek’s humour and style of writing, I cannot in good

conscience recommend this book. This is primarily because the book lacks a conclusion.

Hašek died amidst writing the volumes, so for those who do invest in several hundred pages

of Švejk’s ludicrous fables, all readers are met with is an unfinished tale of a worried

lieutenant pacing around his office. While this is to no fault of the author, it makes investing

in the book much less pleasurable.

Not only that, but the characters in The Good Soldier Švejk (for the most part) are

insufferable. Many of the characters are intended to be likeable, however they (including

Švejk) are hateful and violent, randomly spewing antisemitism among pages of slurs. While

slurs are not uncommon to see in classics, but the hatred the characters display has no place in the book. It is unnatural and demonstrates excessive hostility towards ethnic minorities. The characters also touch on themes of domestic abuse, alcoholism and corporal punishment, so the book should be read with that in mind and an understanding of the themes presented.

Another major issue with this book is the way in which it is published. With today's declining

attention spans, reading several hundred pages of drivel is already a challenge. It doesn’t

help that publishers typically release all volumes of The Good Soldier Švejk as a collection,

making it a long and dreary read. I cannot emphasise enough how much I regret reading it as a collection. It’s akin to binge reading all of Sherlock Holmes; it just isn’t advisable, and makes

the literature a lot less enjoyable. My biggest advice if you choose to read The Good Soldier

Švejk is to read the book as separate volumes. It will make it a much more palatable and

enjoyable read.

In the end, The Good Soldier Švejk is a valuable read in terms of literary technique and

relevance to current events. However, it’s also incredibly complicated, and you really need to

sit down with the novel and have an active sense of humour to enjoy it. It’s a difficult read, but if you can engage with the book and the themes it covers you will find a beautiful balance of

humour and scrutiny. However, I repeat, you should read The Good Soldier Švejk with caution.

There is much of the book that is incredibly problematic and, frankly, disturbing (done for both technical purposes and not). So if you do choose to read, proceed with caution and know it is an inconclusive tale.


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