A Nation of Schweiks by Sam Bingham 119
Directions for My Funeral by Frank O’Connor 120
Child’s Play by Michael Janeway 121
Back to the Primitive by John Greenway 124
Bits and Pieces of Trips by John Wain 125
The Peripatetic Reviewer by Edward Weeks 127
In 660 Easy Lessons by Arthur Loesser 130
Short Reviews: Records by Herbert Kupferberg 131
Short Reviews: Books by Phoebe Adams 132
Schweik in Print
The Good Soldier Schweik
by Jaroslav Hasek
translated by Paul Selver
(Ungar, $6.50; Signet NAL paperback, $.75)
(both editions are abridged)
Prague in early October. The Russians had landed long since, but Western headlines were already on the wane. Someone had put glass back in the windows of the National Museum, but outside old women still sold picture postcards of its bulletspattered facade. The chalked graffiti concentrated more now on putting back numbers on houses than slogans on public buildings, though swastikas still peeked through the scrubbing.
Normalization had set in, and as surface life was indeed normal again, one could afford to take time over a cheap goulash to read a book. My particular book had line drawings of a rather corpulent infantryman on every page, which prompted fellow diners to remark with astonishing regularity, “Oh, you’re reading the Bible,” or “That’ll tell you what it’s all about,” or “So you’re getting to know our Good Soldier Schweik.”
Schweik has indeed a glorious past, as a literary figure at least. Jan Hašek, a popular satirist of the World War I era, created him in a cycle of stories written largely in a Prague pub between 1920 and 1923 which came out in eighteen languages in 1926 as a book of some 700 pages. Schweik has been the antiwar antihero of plays and films ever since. Incidentally, the Berliner Ensemble of East Berlin carries Brecht’s Schweik in the Second World War in this season’s repertory. Such is Schweik’s reputation in letters, but I was not in a literary café.
Now, I happen to wear an eye patch, as the Hussite hero Jan
Žižka did after the battle of White Mountain, but no one ever mentioned him or even Moishe Dayan to me. The book brought up Schweik, for it was he who seemed to be on everyone’s mind. An American might have met such a character in Catch-22. There are a few also in The Tin Drum. An East German even said that for him Schweik recalled Khrushchev. At best, he is an unusual idol.
The day may come, of course, when average American workingmen wear Yossarian on their lapels the way the Czechs wear Schweik. In arriving at that eye patch, I spent some time in an Air Force hospital ward where Joseph Heller’s book, courtesy of the Oshkosh Methodist Ladies Auxiliary, was sworn upon like Holy Writ by all sorts and conditions of Vietnam veterans. For good or evil, however, something extraordinary has happened when a whole nation acts that way, and contrary to some opinion, it probably does not reflect a general conversion to a peace-loving, nonviolent world view. If one has to choose between Yossarian and Schweik, the latter shows up the less honorable and less sensitive by far. Hašek’s humor is black as pitch, if perhaps inspiring and probably immortal.
Schweik, a merchant of dogs in civilian life, precipitates disaster by selling the colonel’s spitz to Lieutenant Lukash, the man he serves. Schweik in his innocence joins bloody nationalistic rows between Czechs and Magyars. Love never appears in serious context, and perhaps the deepest friendship is between Schweik and his first master, Chaplain Katz, who is really a Jewish alcoholic who loses Schweik to Lukash in a card game. An infinity of incidental sketches includes such unfortunates as a patriotic German who for no obvious reason flies from a speeding flatcar to impale himself on a switch lever. Throughout it all the good soldier never once expresses even a selfish philosophy of life and only the mildest indignation at injustices that Joseph Heller never dreamed of.
There are brutal parts in Catch-22 as well, and the utter irrationality and cruelty of officers whose eccentricities have been blessed with power have changed little since Schweik’s Imperial Army days. Heller produced some maniacs for free enterprise and some for parades. Hašek has a general whose formula for victory is goulash and potatoes (there never are any) for the men at 6:00, defecation at 8:30, and sleep at 9:00. The important conclusion is, however, that major problems lie ahead for any reader who finds himself not only amused by these catalogues of excess but also ensnared by serious admiration for the absurd. It’s healthy enough to ask the question, “Who’s crazy, him or me?”, but only so long.
Even now this is a relatively novel predicament among well-read Americans whom Chicago politics, assassinations, riots, and war still have the power to shock. The Czechs have had it much worse. They have seen their best hopes dashed ever since Jan Hus went to the stake in 1415. Even Catch-22 ends positively on Yossarian’s departure for Sweden. By ironic fate Good Soldier Schweik never ends, because before his hero even made it to the front, Hašek died of tuberculosis which he contracted in the war.
And why is Schweik any comfort to the people in my October goulash shop? Why reply to the officer who calls you a stupid ox, “Pleased to report, sir, I am really a stupid ox”? It is because Schweik, though some may see in him the alienated existentialist confronting the system, proves by his life that there is no system at all beyond certain appearances. His tormentors get drunk, lose the records, die in the nick of time, or succumb to other prejudices until the machinery totters forward only on the strength of victory reports written before the battles.
Schweik has the habit, when confronted by zealous clerics, military courts, or patriotic old maids, to recount pertinent episodes from his life. “Once back home in the ‘Chalice’ pub. . .” That generally undermines the seriousness of an official situation by rendering it commonplace and irrelevant to any system. Men are weak. Life is rough. If anything counts at all, it is the details rather than the plan. If a man keeps his cool long enough, then he has nothing to fear from jails, courts, executions, and war. One arrives at passive resistance by way of private cynicism rather than mass morality. That means Yossarian, not Martin Luther King; black humor, not black tragedy. “Law and Order me, baby, and you’ll blow your mind.” Nonviolent anarchy perhaps.
So Svejkovina, Schweikism, is the last and most impregnable trench into which a population can fall back. They can lock up leaders and writers and professors, but Schweik they cannot touch. Czechs say impudently, “They will find us a nation of Schweiks,” or “This time even Bretschneider [a notorious informer in the book] is with us.” There is not a lot of precedent yet in the United States for this particular kind of enthusiasm, although it did happen somewhere that Wallace protesters stole the Alabamian’s thunder by consistently cheering one instant before he made a point. What could he say? They were cheering.
Yet somehow it is not healthy to work toward a nation of Schweiks. Like Catch-22 the book gives men (both works are primarily masculine) a way to retain a shred of selfrespect when all of life seeks to destroy it. Nevertheless, the Czechs, despite their Schweik buttons, would rather not stop there. Behind the thorny humor of Hašek, or Miloš Forman for that matter, behind Kafka, lurks a longing for a traditional moment of glory, for a Jan Žižka, a defenestration, a Dubček and Svoboda even. What wouldn’t the Czechs give to exchange Schweik for Tito and some blood-soakod Slavic victories.
Peter Demetz, a Czech-born German professor at Yale, wrote a piece for the West German Review entitled “With Teeth-Gnashing Hope,” in which he poured out the pent-up bitterness of friends (new refugees) he had known on the barricades in the years before the fall of Beneš. They had suffered the full measure of Stalinism, and until the Dubček regime unlocked the doors, they had lived, says Demetz, under the ever present order “Maintain Quiet.” don’t rock the boat. For them Schweik is neither comfort nor solution.
The impatient young, entranced by the opportunities elsewhere, cannot resign themselves to that kind of life now, just as the liberal crusaders of the Beneš years would rather leave than risk it again. And those who do stay behind today cling desperately to the euphoria of the August resistance days when Bretschneider really was “with us,” knowing that if the national unity breaks . . . “Pleased to report, sir, I am really a stupid ox.” It’s back to the old sordid life where details and not grand ideas are memorable. Maybe it is this desperation that makes Czech democrats so remarkably genuine.
How long would our malcontents take secret pride in pretending to be Yossarian under a Wallace Administration? How many can hang on to that patience where even the suggestion exists? Few. Most of us would rather have revolution than Yossarian. Our world has indeed gone so far that we understand Joseph Heller’s jokes and learn sympathy for his characters, but how many of us can imagine really living like that? Well, you better believe it, the Czechs are struggling to see life otherwise, and until they succeed, Schweik speaks.