‘Humbly report, sir’

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On 3 January 1923 a rackety Czech ex-Communist, ex-anarchist, exeditor, ex-soldier named Jaroslav Hašek died in straitened circumstances in the village of Lipnice, east of Prague. He was not yet 40 and did not live to finish the book he was writing. By that time, however, The Good Soldier Svejk and His Fortunes in the World War was already hundreds of thousands of words long and gave every appearance of going on indefinitely. Three volumes and a part of a fourth were complete; the hero, the ‘certified imbecile’ Josef Švejk, after a long and irregular journey east from Prague as a soldier in the 91st Regiment of the Austro-Hungarian army, was about to stumble into the slaughterhouse of the Galician front.

It might be assumed that Hašek’s failure to finish his book was a tragic loss. In fact, he left behind a masterpiece, one borne on a ceaseless flow of stories, misadventures, jokes and satire. The Good Soldier, finished or not, may be the most effective, and certainly the funniest, piece of anti-military (and generally subversive) writing ever produced. It might be longer but it could hardly be better.

I first came upon Švejk (pronouced ‘shvake’) in the early 1950s when I was drafted into the American army. I was instantly captivated. Despite the fact that ours was a different era and a very different army from Švejk’s – it’s a long way from Fort Knox, Kentucky, where we were undergoing basic training, to the plains of Central Europe – the similarities were irresistible. It was deeply satisfying to learn how, like us, the forces of Emperor Franz Josef were so richly supplied with pompous and bone-headed officers, pointless regulations, boring duties and lousy food. Who would be a soldier? None of us conscripts (especially the college graduates) was happy to be there. Fortunately I had a copy of Svejk in my duffel bag. This, an abridged and somewhat expurgated version published as a Penguin Special, becam

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About the contributor

Charles Elliott is a former journalist and book editor who spent three deeply informative peacetime years in the US Army. He is the author of several books of essays, the latest of which, Every Man Needs a Tractor, has just been published.

A word should be said about the translation by Cecil Parrott, the first complete edition published in English. It is crisp and clever and far better than the abridged version by Paul Selver that I read in the 1950s. A new edition translated by Zenny K. Sadlon and Emmett Joyce and recently published in the United States claims to be better yet, but it is hard to get hold of. The illustrations by Josef Lada are now classic. Hašek and Lada were close friends, but Hašek died before he had a chance to approve Lada’s concept of Švejk. Some connoisseurs have argued that it shows him as too much the congenital idiot, neglecting his crafty side. Whether or not that is a fair criticism, the association is now permanent, and they are wonderful pictures.

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