Posts Tagged ‘Don Quixote’

Jaroslav Hašek: The Good Soldier Švejk

December 18, 2022

     When I’m under the weather – it’s the long-lasting cold from hell at the moment – I usually choose an old favourite to re-enjoy as I rest in bed, something not too demanding which I know I’ll enjoy. My annotations inform me that this is at least the sixth, if not the seventh time I’ve read Švejk’s astonishing adventures in the Great War.

I’m familiar with a good deal of fiction from several countries set during this conflict, and this Czech masterpiece is the only humorous treatment of the subject I know. It’s completely crazy, laugh-out-loud hilarious in places, easily readable and unputdownable. The hero is a garrulous, incredibly knowledgeable utter idiot who survives by his wits and drives his officers crazy; the scrapes an utter simpleton can get himself into have to be read to be believed, and in a way the fact that the novel originates from what was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the Great War seems to explain why that empire was destined to disintegrate.

How can one possibly write a funny novel about the war? This is years before the Absurdists came along, but throughout the book, the insanity of war, warfare and the military’s inflated sense of itself is repeatedly and constantly made evident. This time, I was also struck by the fact that it’s probably not actually a novel at all, there being no real plot and its actually ending unfinished as Hašek died before he could complete it (and after 800 pages!). It’s more of a picaresque adventure in the manner of Gargantua and Pantagruel, or Don Quixote: we follow the hero’s adventures wherever he goes.

In and among the many cretinous idiocies of army life and organisation there are, nevertheless, frequent glimpses of the real horrors of that war, especially its effects on civilians. Hašek was an anarchist and he develops and interlards his political, social and religious views throughout the text. In particular, there is merciless mockery of the hypocrisy of organised religion which sanctifies war and killing. It’s anti-war, anti-military and anti-monarchist; I love it.

As a picaresque tale it does feel rambling and shapeless at times, but in some ways this serves to emphasise the long-suffering of the ordinary soldiers, and the chaos and confusion the army and its officers bring in their wake. The final sections become more and more surreal as the troops march aimlessly around the remains of battlefields, corpses, casualties and desperate surviving civilians. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it remains a masterpiece. I hope I shall have the time to read it one more time, one day…

These I have (also) loved…

October 30, 2015


(continuing the theme of literatures from other lands)

 It does seem a little unfair to put so many writers and nations together under ‘other’ but you will understand what I mean when I say that there is not enough time to read everything I would like to, and that some countries and authors will just have to wait for my next existence…

I’m glad I read Don Quixote once. I’m not sure I’ll have time to come back to him, but I did understand why the Spanish love him, and I learned quite a lot about the development of the novel in its early days.

The Portuguese writer Jose Saramago has intrigued me and I’ve read several of his novels; Blindness, which I believe had been made into a film and which I’m definitely NOT planning to watch, is one of the scariest and most horrifying novels I’ve read. Almost everyone is struck blind over the course of a few days, and the anarchy and human vileness which is released makes the world of Lord of the Flies seem like the Teddy Bears’ Picnic. It’s stunning, and fearsomely convincing. However, it’s Antonio Tabucci‘s Pereira Maintains that I have liked best from that country’s literature. He conveys the spookiness of the long Salazar dicatatorship very effectively indeed.

I’ve read several Italian novelists. Umberto Eco I’ve written at great length about elsewhere in this blog if you care to look, so no more about him. Primo Levi I have found very moving. He was an Auschwitz survivor who eventually committed suicide, but not before writing a powerful memoir, If This is a Man, and an intriguing, semi-autobiographical novel inspired by his life (he was a research chemist) called The Periodic Table, which I think is a masterpiece, especially the final chapter. And I love the lighthearted feel of The Garden of the Finzi Continis, by Gregorio Bassani, with the hidden undertones of menace in the background… but if I had to pick the very best, then I’d undoubtedly go for Giovanni di Lampedusa‘s The Leopard, a stunningly beautiful and lyrical tale of the emergence of modern Italy and the disappearance of an era seen through the eyes of a man who knows it must happen, wants it to happen and knows it makes him redundant, inescapably part of a past that has gone forever.

I also have to mention the Albanian Ismail Kadare. Older friends of mine will be acquainted with my fascination with the country, largely due to listening to propaganda broadcasts from Radio Tirana in the evenings. So when I came across translations – mainly into French, but some into English, of this astonishing writer, I was hooked. Broken April is set in the tradition of the kanun, or blood-feud, a historically Albanian thing, with all sorts of rules about who you can and can’t kill, and when. The Pyramid is an allegory of sorts about his own country under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, while telling the story of the building of the pyramids in ancient Egypt, and The Palace of Dreams creates a bureaucracy to rival Kafka‘s. And then there are realistic novels set in the Albania of the fifties and sixties as she fell out with the Soviet Union (‘social imperialists’)and came to ally herself with the Chinese, The Concert, and The Great Winter. He is a masterly chronicler of his times and his country, and an entertaining novelist.

I’m glad to have been able to get to know (I’m sure merely skimming the surface) the literature of so many other lands; I do think it’s sad how many people I meet who, though they may venture far from our shores on holiday, never do so in the realms of reading. What they have missed…

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