The Uses of Ambiguity: The Good Soldier Schweik

Ever since the time of Juvenal, and probably before, satirists have been hard at work deflating the pretensions of their societies and speaking truth to power with a wink and an air of feigned sincerity. Some, like Swift and Voltaire, channel their “savage indignation” into creating a better world. Others, like Pope, gently mock the foibles of their day. One trope employed to excellent effect by many practitioners of this genre is that of the innocent who acts as a comedic foil. Through their simplicity, these heroes unmask the vices and hypocrisies of those around them. America had Huck Finn drifting down the Mississippi on his raft; Eastern Europe had the ambiguous rogue Schweik.

The Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek published his unfinished anti-war masterpiece, The Good Soldier Schweik, at about the same time James Joyce was drawing attention with his more famous work, Ulysses. It remains today in my mind the funnier and more compelling of the two. On every page, Hasek probes beneath the surface of his erstwhile nation’s patriotic fervor and mocks the insanity of war itself. In one telling passage, he relates the story of an educator conscripted by the Austro-Hungarian Empire who was remanded to military prison for stealing a watch. “He did so with complete deliberation. The war did not impress or attract him. He considered it stark lunacy to fire at the enemy and with shrapnel and shells to slaughter the unfortunate teachers of mathematics like himself on the other side. And so he stole the watch.”

In another place, he writes, “Before the departure of the slow train, the third class refreshment room became packed with travelers, consisting mostly of soldiers belonging to the most varied units and nationalities. The tide of war had swept them into hospital, and now they were again leaving for the front to be wounded, mutilated, and tortured once more, so as to qualify for a wooden cross on their graves.”

The titular hero of the tale is Schweik, a former soldier of the multi-ethnic Austria-Hungary who earns a little income by selling dogs. He receives a draft notice, but the secret police arrest him on nonsensical charges before he can report for duty. When he finally appears for service in a wheelchair due to his arthritis, he is immediately thrown into military prison as a malingerer.

Most would be downcast at these vicissitudes, but Schweik calmly sails through them, claiming that he is simple-minded. He guilelessly does whatever he is asked and, in the process, reveals the folly of the authorities and the vicious absurdity of their martial enterprise.

For their part, the officials he encounters can never quite make up their minds whether Schweik is truly a simpleton as he claims or whether he is, in reality, mocking them. “The provost marshal’s keen glance scrutinized Schweik’s face and figure, but he was baffled by them. Such unconcern and innocence radiated from the personality standing before him that he began to pace furiously to and fro.” And as readers, we often find ourselves in the same position. Hasek gives us no glimpse into Schweik’s motives. We see only his actions which are by turns ludicrous or canny.

It is perhaps this very ambiguity that allowed for so anarchic a tale’s publication. Although the nation he satirized no longer existed at the time of its publication, the book rises above the particulars to speak a universal truth. Hasek could, like his character, claim with bland sincerity that he was merely telling a comic story of a bumbling soldier who winds up being captured by his own men. If the antics of this buffoon reveal the foolishness of authority, then that is none of his affair. But behind this pose, we see the hand of a master satirist exploding the myths and propaganda by which the powerful dominate the naive.

At times Schweik’s material veers into regions of genuinely dark comedy. While under military detention, we encounter Captain Linhart, who tells us, “riffraff have got to be treated like riffraff. If anybody raises Cain, why, off he goes to solitary confinement, and once he’s there, we smash all his ribs and leave him ’til he pops off. We’re entitled to do that.” His assistant then relates of his last victim, “He was a tough un’ no mistake. I must have been trampling on him for five minutes before his ribs began to crack and blood came out of his mouth. And he lived for another ten days after that. Oh, he was a regular terror.”

However, interlaced with these gruesome episodes are moments of lighter comedy. Hasek has a keen sense of timing, and while the book has a serious message about the absurdity of war, it is also genuinely funny in a way few such polemics could be.

In one such instance, Schweik is made an orderly to an alcoholic military chaplain. The good padre suffers from delirium while in his cups, and the novelist piles one absurd hallucination on top of another in a hyperbolic cascade until we cannot help but laugh. “The chaplain let go of the door and clung to Schweik, who pushed him aside and then carried him out into the street, where he drew him along in a homeward direction. ‘Who’s that bloke?’ asked one of the onlookers in the street. ‘That’s my brother,’ replied Schweik. ‘He came home on leave, and when he saw me, he was so happy he got drunk because he thought I was dead.’ The chaplain who caught the last few words stood up straight and faced the onlookers: ‘Any of you who are dead must report themselves to headquarters in three days so that their corpses can be consecrated.’ And he lapsed into silence, endeavoring to fall nose-first onto the pavement.”

The close dates of publication beg comparison to Joyce’s Ulysses. While Stephen Daedelus and Leopold Bloom were artfully wandering around Dublin, Schweik was touring madhouses real and metaphorical and exposing the horrors of the First World War. And while Hasek’s prose lacks Joyce’s sophistication, his subject matter seems to me more necessary. Joyce explored the “stream of consciousness,” but we get no hint at the protagonist’s interior life in Hasek’s work. Schweik remains an ambiguous cipher, surviving the war by shrewd mockery or dumb luck, depending on our point of view. The writer seems less interested in “catching the atoms of thought as they fall” and more interested in catching the souls of men before their bodies fall on the field of battle.

An early critic of Joyce once remarked that “we learn nothing new from Bloom.” Perhaps we learn nothing new from Schweik either. From the first strokes of recorded history, the strong have oppressed the weak, those in authority have abused their power, and young men have been manipulated into dying in senseless wars. But while it is nothing new, it must always be said whenever it is possible. Those who would reveal the truth of unjust government are often its first victims. There will always be those who, like Captain Linhart, think that they are entitled to their cruelty. And there will always be those who are drawn to mindless nationalism. The enigmatic Schweik stands as a signpost and a warning to each new generation. His character may be ambiguous, but the message of his story is not. Those in power must always be examined and held to account when they act unjustly.

The Uses of Ambiguity, copyright Jonathan Golding 2021, all rights reserved.

Cover art, illustration from The Good Soldier Schweik by Josef Lada, public domain

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