Jaroslav Hašek – The Good Soldier Švejk; part I, chapters 1-6

I usually prefer to wait until I have a bigger chunk of a piece before writing a post about it (sometimes too big, to which my recent lack of posts can attest), but something I noticed about this first section jumped out at me so much that I just had to stick my pretty little nose in here to point it out.

The events of the first section revolve around a plainclothes police officer named Bretschneider fishing for subversives in a nearly empty pub.  He arrests both the titular Švejk and the pub’s owner, Palivec, neither one for saying anything particularly subversive, and accuses both of them of treason.  The primary point of interest here is that the German-named Bretschneider is a plainclothes police officer entrapping Czechs, which anyone old enough to remember the late 80s conflicts at the close of Soviet Union (e.g., not me) will recognize as very similar to the protests at Wenceslas Square.  Video is surprisingly hard to come by, but in the late 1980s, youths’ protests were violently quashed by riot police aided by plainclothes police among the protesters who pointed out particular members of the crowd.

The Good Soldier Švejk‘s first chapter makes it clear that Czechs were in this paranoia-fostering position even before communist control.  As a member of the Austro-Hungarian empire, they were just as under control of foreign powers as Czechoslovakia became in the post-war era, and were just as wary of secret police looking to take their comments out of context.

From one John’s bed to the next.

This figure who stands in for the secret police ultimately gets justice from the Czech perspective:  he buys a few of the mongrel dogs Švejk passes off as throroughbreds in an effort to make Švejk trust him enough to volunteer more treasonous statements.  Švejk acts oblivious of is bating however, and Bretschneider fails to get enough to arrest him further.  “And that was the end of the famous detective Bretschneider.  When he had seven monsters of this kind in his flat, he shit himself up with them in the back room and starved them so long that they finally gobbled him up,” (54).

Švejk’s is a victory Czechs can be proud of: he is paid several hundred crowns by a shadowy organization trying to entrap him, but avoids the entrapment and makes off with the money.  This whole first section sees Švejk as a stand-in for the Czech people, as he is passed from one haven of “alien authority” (44) to another, just as the Bohemian lands and people are caught in a struggle between foreign powers such as Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia.

Also of note in these early sections is Švejk’s intelligence, which he will work to conceal in the hopes that he will be safer if thought stupid: though he misattributes the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to a Turk, Švejk correctly suggests that the assassination will be the start of a causal chain ending in a Europe-wide war.  Perhaps Hašek is pointing out that even an idiot could see the danger of an intricate web of compulsory alliances, but I think that the mention on the first page that Švejk had “been finally certified by an army medical board as an imbecile,” (3)—suggesting that Švejk had engaged in a long and complicated process to obtain this certification—aligns with the usual interpretation of The Good Soldier Švejk, that Švejk deliberately plays up the image of an idiot to make out better in the service.

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