BOOK REVIEW: The Good Soldier Ŝvejk by Jaroslav Haŝek

The Good Soldier ŠvejkThe Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Haŝek’s novel is a satire of war and the absurdities that arise therein. It’s a novel in the vein of Heller’s Catch-22 and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. It predates those novels, and is set around World War I–rather than those other novels’ World War II bases.

The novel begins at the outset of the First World War, and revolves around the title character, Ŝvejk (also spelled Schweik). Ŝvejk is an enigma. Believing that no man can be so stupid, authority figures are constantly suspecting him of being a saboteur or a goldbrick. It’s never made clear whether Ŝvejk is a brilliant con artist or the complete dolt he appears to be.

The story follows Ŝvejk from some ill-considered statements about the Archduke Franz Ferdinand that get him in trouble through to his unit’s advance on the front lines of the war. He leaves behind his job selling mangy dogs with forged pedigrees when he’s drawn back into the military (he’d previously served and been released as feeble-minded.) Along the way, he spends time as a chaplain’s assistant and a batman (a military officer’s servant, not the superhero)—that is, after he gets released from a lunatic asylum.

Ŝvejk is, at once, the best and worst of soldiers. He is honest to a fault, except when lying in the service of others—at which point his lies are inevitably humorously transparent. He isn’t a free-thinker and will follow orders—as best he can remember or understand them—to their, often absurd, bitter end. Of course, the flip side of this is that he doesn’t know how or when to speak, and while he’s not a free-thinker, nor is he much of a thinker–period.

The following quote sums up why Ŝvejk is the best and worst of soldiers: “Beg to report, sir. I don’t think because soldiers ain’t allowed to. Years and years ago, when I was in the Ninety-first Regiment, the captain always used to tell us: ‘Soldiers must’nt think. Their superior officers do all their thinking for them. As soon as a soldier begins to think, he’s no longer a soldier, but a lousy civilian.’” This is the mantra Ŝvejk lives by, and it serves no one well in the volatile and mercurial world of war.

Ŝvejk isn’t the only comedic character in the book. There’s a drunkard Catholic priest of Jewish ancestry for whom Ŝvejk serves as an assistant until the priest lost him in a card game. There’s another batman who’s constantly hungry, and eats anything he can get his hands on–even if it’s the private stock of the officer for whom he works. There’s a reserve officer, Lieutenant Dub, who is always trying to show how tough he is but is constantly foiled by Ŝvejk’s frankness and naiveté.

There’re also straight men such as Lieutenant Lukas—the man who wins Ŝvejk’s services from the chaplain, and who comes to rue the day he did. Lukas is a competent military officer with a good head on his shoulders. But Ŝvejk’s bumbling antics are constantly getting the Lieutenant in hot water, and he finds Ŝvejk to be the proverbial bad penny. A prime example of Lukas’s regret comes when Ŝvejk gets the Lieutenant a dog that he knows is stolen, but that turns out to be rightfully owned by a Colonel.

Another straight man is the Quartermaster who knows enough to ignore the first order to draw rations because the military never moves as quickly as the officers think it will. (Incidentally, the best piece of advice I ever got when working with bureaucratic organizations was to always ignore new directives that seemed asinine because eventually most will die on the vine.)

This book is humorous, if not hilarious. One of the funniest episodes is when Ŝvejk is cast in with the malingerers and has no idea what they are talking about as they discuss their strategies for staying out of the war. Another is when the officers devise a code based on an obscure book only to discover that it’s a two volume set and they’ve dispatched the wrong volume as the key.

Much of the humor comes in the form of Ŝvejk’s dialogue. He’s a gregarious chap who rambles on at the most inopportune times. Some classic Ŝvejk quotes include:
-“I’m feeble-minded, fair and square.” (when accused of being a cunning malingerer)
-“I’ve been cross-examined once and they chucked me out. And what I’m afraid of is that these other gentlemen who are here along with me are going to have a grudge against me because I’ve been called for cross-examination twice running and they’ve not been there at all yet this evening.” (upon being called back for a second round of interrogation)
-“Pigs might fly if they had wings.” (when accused of being a spy, and asked whether he’d have taken pictures if he’d had a camera)
-“I used to serve under a Colonel Flieder von Boomerang, or something like that, and he was just about half your height. He had a long beard, and it made him look like a monkey, and when he got ratty he used to jump so high that we called him India-rubber Daddy. Well, one day—“ (upon being accused of having no respect for his superiors)

One of the weaknesses of this novel is its rather abrupt ending. This is because Haŝek was only two-thirds of the way through with the novel when he died of tuberculosis. It’s not that there is no ending, but it reads like just another turn of events that Ŝvejk would eventually bumble his way out of. Of course, that’s likely because that’s what the author intended it to be.

As with Heller and Vonnegut, Haŝek’s novel benefits from his personal experience. He was drafted into the military and spent five years as a prisoner of war in the hands of the Russians. (A situation that somewhat mirrors the experience of his protagonist.)

If you like war satire, you should pick up The Good Soldier Ŝvejk.

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Our Most Beloved and Most Deadest of Presidents

Source: Kennedy Library

Source: Kennedy Library

Presidents live the ultimate catch-22, the only way to reliably boost their approval ratings is to shuffle off this mortal coil (i.e.become worm food.)  The more decomposed a president, the more fond our remembrances of him. The worst thing that anyone ever says about a long dead president is nothing at all. When was the last time you heard a scathing character impeachment of Millard Fillmore? (I do realize that a person with the supreme narcissism needed to be president may find silence more insufferable than being called the son of a syphilitic donkey whore.)

(Quick, without looking, name a president from the 19th century other than Jefferson or Lincoln [or Fillmore]?) FYI- there were 23 or 24 of them. If you drank your entire cup of coffee before you could come up with one of the other twenty names, congratulations you are a typical American– or an exceptional non-American.

I first noticed this phenomena when watching the Reagan funeral. Everyone from all walks of life had great things to say about our 40th president on that day. However, while I was still a minor at the time, I distinctly remember half of the country loathing the man spectacularly and engaging in ad hominem attacks against him at any opportunity. Well there was one period during which no one was saying horrible things about Reagan’s character and that was  during the brief period after the assassination attempt when his opponents thought he might die — at which point they went into dead presidents mode. Had Reagan passed away at the hands of John Hinckley, he would’ve achieved a level of freedom from being crapped upon usually reserved for a our first few (long decomposed) presidents.

Still, Reagan has achieved the broadly beloved status of being the Democrat’s “In-your-face President” just like Kennedy serves in that role for Republicans. An “In-your-face President” is one that political parties use to attempt to show that their current opposition is on the lunatic fringe by indicating that that iconic leader supported something vaguely, roughly approximal in a similar sort of way to what they are trying to do in the present day. These statements being followed by a silent, but understood, “IN YO’ FACE.”

I’m sure that when Carter dies, equally lovely things will be said about him — though never has a bigger train wreck of state been seen then the term of James Earl Carter. To be fair, some of the wheels that rolled off the RV-of-state were not his fault, but we  give all the credit and all the blame to the president. Why do you think Clinton is always grinning like he just had sex? No, it’s not because he just had sex– though he did (the speaking circuit is like fishing with dynamite), it’s because he reigned over the big bubbly part of the bubble. When we were rich because we thought we had a lot of valuable stuff, before anyone bothered to look inside and see what we had was rotten at the core.

Admittedly, Nixon’s demise did challenge everybody’s ability to grin and say nice things.  Comments were made such as, “That Checkers was a good boy, such a good boy, yes he WAS… YES he WAS. Oh yeah, and how about that China thing, that was a real work of diplomacy.”  (Checkers was one of Nixon’s dogs, made famous by a Vice Presidential speech of the same name.) The word “China” was used at Nixon’s funeral more than it was used at the Chinese Conference on China in Beijing, China. Of course, there wasn’t much nice to say about Nixon. Democrats can’t even take advantage of the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was a Nixon Administration initiative. Nixon can’t be an “In-your-face President.” It’s too much like slapping your opponent with a bloated dead fish; you may hit them, but you’re going to get the stink on you never-the-less.

BOOK REVIEW: You Suck by Christopher Moore

You Suck (A Love Story, #2)You Suck by Christopher Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I haven’t read Twilight or any of the many YA vampire books that have glutted the market in recent years, but You Suck perfectly captures what real teenage vampires would be like. Tommy Flood is not a confident, suave, sexy vampire. He’s an awkward, if likable, dumb-ass. Christopher Moore’s characters are hilarious and, sadly, true to life.

Moore tickles the funny-bone as he tells a love story of a young couple up against an elder vampire, a group of other young idiots, and the cops. The fact that the couple isn’t pitted against each other– despite the fact that the female, Jody, turned Flood into a vampire– is testament to the strength of the relationship. If anything can sour a relationship, it’s one half of the couple turning the other into a vampire (or a Zombie for that matter.)

While the tension is not intense, the humor is ubiquitous. More importantly, one gets food for thought on such mundane vampire questions as:
– how does one recruit a good minion? (Abby Normal holds her own as a font of humor.)
– do cats make suitable substitutes for a blood meal?
– what happens when you bronze a vampire?

I enjoyed this book, and suspect you will too.

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