Book review: The Good Soldier Švejk

In preparation for my upcoming trip to the Czech Republic, I though that I would read one of the country’s most famous works of literature, The Good Soldier Švejk, by Jaroslav Hašek. The book centers around the shenanigans of the titular soldier, Josef Švejk, and his hilarious incompetence/brilliance. The novel starts out immediately after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and it ends up as Švejk’s regiment is heading off to the front. Along the way, Švejk manages to get himself thrown into an insane asylum, the army, the army jail, and arrested, due to his anecdotes and his general misfortune (the book’s subtitle is His Fortunes in the World War, after all). The novel is rich with characters who are inept and highly incompetent, but it just adds to the absurdity of it all; it serves as a satire of the  Austro-Hungarian army and its officers. The way Hašek writes is exceptionally smooth, much to the delight of the reader-he comes up with these grand, bizarre situations with apparent ease. One should note that this is due to Hašek’s own personal life experiences: he was a vagabond and actually got thrown into an asylum, so in a way, Švejk’s escapades mirrored the author’s life.

From the auspicious beginning of the novel to the gradually more and more surreal ending, this is one of the best reads in a long time for me. The characters, each highly flawed in their own ways, brings infinite amount of flavor; their collective incompetence is arguably what makes the novel as hilarious as it is. Another theme of the novel is its subtle “take that” at certain establishments, namely, the priests of the Catholic Church. This may anger some people, but Hašek does a tasteful job of highlighting the nature of them; in real life, he was never a fan of the church, so he incorporated that into the book through his hapless protagonist.

Finally, Josef Lada’s wonderful cartoons added yet some more flavor to the novel. They were simplistic enough, but given the style of the book, made the progressively ridiculous situations better. Personally, I felt that seeing Švejk embodied in cartoons gave me that extra connection to the humble soldier.

Overall I would highly, highly recommend the novel. From the underrated Czech literary scene, this classic novel, in my humble opinion, could stand with the best literature the world has seen and read.


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