Finnegan’s Švejk

Finnegan’s Švejk

The real sequel to Ulysses

During a NATO summit in late 2002, a man dressed in a First World War uniform and waving crutches turned up at a Prague protest against the impending invasion of Iraq. Na Bagdád, paní Müllerová! His demand to march on Baghdad echoed an early scene in Hašek’s novel The Good Soldier Švejk. The version used here (1973) is by Cecil Parrott, who can be forgiven a certain English stiffness in translation and even the phrases in iffy Hungarian that remain scattered through the text.

In 1914, the interminable storyteller Josef Švejk gets the charwoman Mrs Müller to wheel him through Prague in a bath chair while he shouts, ‘To Belgrade, to Belgrade!’ The enthusiasm of this disabled veteran is still met with suspicion by the authorities. Corroboration of the barbarism Hašek next describes, even more comically, is evident from a Robert Musil diary entry written in Prague in 1916.

Faradization. Suspicion of shamming, the young lad is faradized [i.e. shocked] every day. “Hu, hu, hu, hu, ayaya, ya,” he wriggles. One warder and four nurses stand around him laughing, holding his arms and legs and pressing the contacts to his body. He pulls faces as if he were laughing.

In the sanatorium hut of the Prague garrison prison, Švejk explains to the other inmates that he’s got rheumatism. Even the dying consumptive, who was shamming tuberculosis, joined in the laughter (p. 63). It’s already a war in there between the malingerers and the medics. All the tricks and rehabilitation tortures are outlined, leading to few firm conclusions.

All those illnesses where you have to foam at the mouth are difficult to shamIn Vršovice there’s a midwife who for twenty crowns will dislocate your legThe best thing to do… is to inject paraffin… My cousin was so fortunate as to have his arm cut off under the elbow...

When the dissolute atheist priest and army chaplain Otto Katz takes a shine to Švejk for weeping sympathetically at one of his sermons, Katz gets the judge advocate’s office to hand him over. It’s all a bit Brexity. Every state on the brink of total political, economic and moral collapse has an establishment like this. The aura of past power and glory clings to its courts, police, gendarmerie and venal pack of informers (p. 79). While Švejk is kept waiting at an office door for his transfer, he has a chance to look around.

There were photographs of various executions carried out by the army in Galicia and Serbia. They were artistic photographs of charred cottages and trees with branches sagging under the weight of the bodies strung up on them. Particularly fine was a photograph from Serbia of a whole family strung up – a small boy and his father and mother. Two soldiers with bayonets were guarding the tree, and an officer stood victoriously in the foreground smoking a cigarette… in the background a field kitchen could be seen in full operation. (p. 93)

After Katz sells a sofa for a song, to help fund wine, women and more song, he and Švejk have to track it down because the chaplain forgot he’d used its drawer to store an army field altar manufactured by a Jewish firm in Vienna. The paintings on the altar invite some detailed art criticism (p.131).

By and large the painter had been unable to ruin the dove. He had painted a kind of bird which could equally well have been a pigeon or a White Wyandotte [i.e. a chicken]. God the Father looked like a bandit from the Wild West… The Son of God on the other hand was… draped in something that looked like bathing drawers. Altogether he looked a sporting type. The cross which he had in his hand he held as elegantly as if it had been a tennis racquet.

Before long Katz gambles Švejk away at cards so Švejk becomes the batman of Oberleutnant Lukáš, who is described (p. 166) as a typical regular officer… The cadet school had turned him into a kind of amphibian. He spoke German in society, wrote German, read Czech books… He equated being a Czech with membership of some sort of secret organization, to which it was wiser to give a wide berth… He enjoyed the affection of his men because he was unusually just and was not in the habit of bullying anyone.

Complications set in after Švejk is told to obtain for Lukáš a particular type of dog. How exactly he is to do this is unspecified but anyway, it should be noted that both Gogol and Hašek (e.g. pp. 190-200) write of dogs in a similar way. They make them members of society, with their own perspectives, fears and weaknesses.

It is only in a school reader or natural history primer that a dog is a faithful animal… allow even the most faithful of dogs to smell a fried horse meat sausage and it is lost.

An old associate delivers a stolen dog to Švejk, who already slyly elicited its favourite food from the maid who walks the animal.

He and his accomplice then tie the dog to the kitchen table so they can discuss forging a pedigree and what new name to give it. This is how Fox becomes Max.

When it was untied, it made its way to the door, where it barked three times at the handle, obviously relying on the generosity of these evil men… [then] it made a little pool by the door, convinced that they would throw it out… Instead Švejk observed: ‘It’s a cunning one, to be sure, a bit of a Jesuit.’ He gave it a blow with his belt and dipped its muzzle in the puddle

Unfortunately a colonel soon encounters Lukáš walking the dog (his dog) on the street. Lukáš and Švejk are transferred to a regiment at České Budějovice in southern Bohemia, as a prelude to being sent to the East. The second part of the book opens with the pair on a train, from which Švejk is removed after a mishap involving the emergency brake handle.

This incident recalls a story told to me by a Jewish Englishman in a Belfast pub on a snowy day in 1987, the year I first read The Good Soldier Švejk. In 1969, G. was on a train somewhere in Czechoslovakia, enjoying the luxury of a Cuban cigar, when a representative of state security slid back the door to tell him to put it out. The railways minister was in the next compartment and didn’t like the smell. After attempting to engage the minister in a fraternal socialist debate about the cigar, G. got thrown off the train at the next station.

After the fuss dies down and he buys a few beers for himself and a Hungarian with one good arm, Švejk has no money for a ticket and he can’t get a train pass because Lukáš has gone on with his documents. He wanders around the Bohemian countryside, encountering tramps and deserters and getting arrested as a suspected Russian spy before finally being put on another train to rejoin a horrified Lukáš, who hoped he’d seen the back of him. Then the battalion moves out, heading east by rail. The first stop is Vienna (p. 348) where a welcoming committee waits on the platform.

But it was not the same as it had been at the beginning of the war… Fatigue could be seen on all these faces. Troop trains passed through day and night, ambulance coaches packed full of wounded every hour… This went on from day to day and the initial enthusiasm degenerated into yawning…. Soldiers peered out of cattle trucks with an expression of hopelessness like people going to the gallows.

Švejk wangles his way into the staff carriage with Lukáš and the train moves on to the old border of Austria and Hungary (p. 351). In both towns… gypsy bands were playing, the windows of the cafés and restaurants gleamed with light, there was singing and drinking. The local burghers and officials brought their wives and grown-up daughters to the cafés and restaurants… Bruck an der Leitha and Királyhida were nothing but one giant brothel.

Full of drink, Lukáš gives Švejk a letter to take to a married woman in Királyhida. He has earlier observed her objecting to an obscene performance of an operetta in the town’s theatre. On his way the next morning Švejk meets the sapper, Vodička, whose pathological dislike of Hungarians sharpens over a few drinks. Švejk unwisely lets the sapper accompany him to the lady’s address, where the letter is handed to the maid. The outraged husband emerges but is thrown out of his own home by Vodička, in whose coat pocket the letter luckily ends up. A mass brawl erupts on the street, involving passing Czech and Hungarian soldiers. In the fight Švejk bravely wields a walking stick lifted from a civilian bystander.

Col. Schröder interviews Lukáš in the aftermath. Schröder dislikes Hungarians too and recalls the shambles they caused with their friendly fire at Belgrade. That was when they interrupted a nice lunch with vintage wine from the cellar of a local wine merchant hanged the night before. He explains the army has arrested the editors of all the Hungarian publications that named Lukáš in the affair. He also promotes Švejk to company orderly for claiming he wrote the letter as a joke and then eating it when asked to reproduce the handwriting. Nonetheless he and Vodička still have to appear before the divisional court (pp. 388-89) to have their cases quashed.

A volume of the legal code lay before him… On the table… stood a crucifix made out of imitation ivory with a dusty Christ, who looked despairingly at the pedestal of his cross, on which there were ashes and cigarette stubs… Ruller was at this very moment flicking the ash from another cigarette onto the pedestal of the crucifix. With his other hand he was raising the glass of tea, which had got stuck to the legal code. When he had freed the glass… he turned over the pages of a book which he had borrowed from the officers’ club. It was a book… with the promising title: Research into the History of the Development of Sexual Morals… He only pulled himself away from the reproductions when Vodička coughed.

Part three begins with the battalion setting off across Hungary and we see a crew of friendly characters begin to assemble around Švejk. These include the calmly cynical Quartermaster Vaňek, the occultist cook Jurajda and the anarchist Marek, the last of whom Švejk has known since they shared a cell in Bohemia. We are also introduced to the glutton Baloun (the new batman to Lukáš) and the idiotically enthusiastic Cadet Biegler.

The train stops at Raab (modern Győr) where the men are meant to be issued with Hungarian salami but instead get two postcards each. Another train carrying a German-speaking regiment goes through the station without stopping but one of its singing soldiers falls out of a wagon and is impaled on a points-lever, which gives the Czechs something to stand around and look at.

Before they move on, Lukáš’s superior Captain Ságner mocks Biegler’s military and literary pretensions so Biegler, already feeling unwell, gets very drunk (p. 493). He then dreams of floating through the universe in the front half of a staff car that has been hit by a shell. We’re flying to heaven, General, and must avoid the comets. When he meets the Lord, the Lord turns out to be Captain Ságner, who orders two angels to throw him into the latrines. A terrible smell fills the wagon where Biegler is sleeping just as the glow of lights over Budapest comes into view. He has contracted dysentery and is offloaded to a hospital where he is mistakenly diagnosed as a carrier of cholera.

In Budapest the theoretical issuing of cheese to the men is replaced by a box of matches, another postcard and the happy news that Italy has declared war on them. In the staff carriage, Biegler is replaced by the pontificating of Lieutenant Dub, a Czech reserve officer and informer who will soon prove to be the arch-enemy of Švejk.

The men are ordered to leave the wagons a second time, only to watch their train with its piles of army bread and sacks of rice get sprayed with disinfectant. Sent off with some money from Lukáš to get something to eat, Švejk buys a hen but not before he’s arrested and accused of trying to steal it. As he explains, all he did was pick it up to ask who owned it.

The feathers thrown out of the van attracted the attention of Lieutenant Dub… He shouted inside that whoever was plucking a hen should present himself and in the door appeared the happy face of Švejk. […] Švejk held the hen’s bowels and other intestines under Lieutenant Dub’s nose (p. 552).

Northeast of Miskolc, the unit finally gets some goulash at Sátoraljaújhely next to the Slovak border. This town also lies about 40 km west of Ukraine. The station is crowded with many different units and wagons can be seen loaded with shot-down aircraft and howitzers with smashed barrels. Lieutenant Dub is telling everyone this is war booty when the wreckage is clearly Austrian. In eastern Slovakia the next day (p. 573) there are signs of fighting on the landscape.

When… they reached Humenné… the men in the transport could in the meantime catch a glimpse of a public secret and observe how, after the departure of the Russians, the authorities treated the local population, who were related to the Russian armies in speech and confession.

Here Hungarian gendarmes beat and toy with civilian prisoners at will. In the staff carriage, most of the officers condemn this and only Dub fully agrees with the brutality and cruelty. Lukáš tells Švejk to go get him a bottle of cognac from a Jewish hawker behind the station, though this is officially forbidden. Dub follows Švejk and when the latter insists that the bottle visible inside his tunic is full of water, Dub tells him to down it all in one go. To Dub’s amazement Švejk drinks it all and flings the bottle into the pond across the road. Though he soon has to lie down for a few hours, he evades Dub’s clutches once more.

The train continues north towards Medzilaborce near the modern Polish border. On the way the signs of fighting get worse. The Carpathian hillsides are lined with trenches and there are huge shell craters on both sides of the railway track. The men see forests shredded by artillery fire and the gleaming white crosses of new army graveyards. In the rear wagons, the Germans from what history remembers as the Sudetenland stop singing.

Beyond the Lupkov Pass they reach Galicia, then the poorest province of Austria-Hungary but today divided between Poland and Ukraine. Frustrated at his inability to catch Švejk out in any way, Dub beats up his own batman, Kunert. In retaliation Švejk leads the dazed Kunert to the staff carriage to make a complaint. Captain Ságner assigns Kunert to the battalion kitchen as compensation for the beating.

As they near the Polish town of Sanok, ruins of villages became more and more common on the landscape. The sight of a wrecked Red Cross train at the bottom of an embankment is a topic of much discussion among Švejk’s crew before Jurajda produces a bottle of cognac he stole from the officers’ mess. Then they get down to playing cards, at which Marek quotes Scripture and proves invincible. Up to this, as battalion historian, he has spent most of his time in the wagon inventing heroic deaths for his comrades.

Just in case anyone might think Hašek exaggerates the fun on the train, Robert Musil is again instructive when his diary describes a transport of wounded. If anything, this suggests Hašek may actually have toned down the surrealism.

Coming from Poland… a goods wagon with cots carries the most severely wounded who are not expected to survive the journey. A man with a severe bullet wound in the lung, and another whose hip joint is smashed… One is Tyrolean, the other Viennese. The Viennese insists that the Tyroleans were no good at all in the war. The Tyrolean gets worked up about it. The Viennese with the bullet wound in the lung is constantly chipping away at him. Often the whole wagon can’t stop laughing. […} On arrival, the Viennese is dead. […] When the train stops most of them start to bellow like animals, feel unbearable pain, and relieve themselves. Officers and men.

At Sanok, Ságner goes to report their arrival to brigade staff. There he meets a Captain Tayrle who shows him how well they are geared for debauchery. He brings Ságner to a café that turns out to be a brothel, where Tayrle demands “Miss Ella”, who turns out to be busy upstairs with the drunken Lieutenant Dub. Ságner goes back to his men. New orders mean the battalion has to march east before nightfall. For a conference of officers, Lukáš tells Švejk to go and find Dub. Švejk knows exactly where he is and has to fight his way upstairs in the brothel because only officers are allowed up there.

The march to the east begins along dusty roads in summer heat. When they stop for a rest, Lukáš tells a small group including Švejk to drop their equipment and go ahead to find village billets for the others. They commandeer sleeping quarters from the well-off and the local clergyman. Only the poor have taken in other poor people who have lost their homes. From a crafty Jew they also buy an emaciated and un-cookable cow, on which Baloun breaks a tooth.

The next day just Švejk and Vaňek are sent ahead at midday to look for billets. At a crossroads they disagree on which way to go to their destination. Two ways are marked. They separate and Švejk comes to a small lake where he finds an escaped Russian prisoner bathing (p. 666). The prisoner flees naked.

His Russian uniform was lying underneath the willows and Švejk was curious to know how it would suit him, so he took off his own and put on the uniform… Švejk wanted to see his reflection in the water and so he walked such a long way along the dam of the lake that he was caught by a patrol of field gendarmerie, who were looking for the escaped Russian prisoner.

Part four begins with Švejk in a transport of Russian prisoners. In charge of their registration is a sergeant-major whose only qualification as an interpreter is that he once learned broken Slovak as a salesman of religious paraphernalia. In a conversation in broken German he mistakes Švejk for a Jew and gives him the thankless task of writing down the names of all the other – mostly Asiatic – prisoners.

In Przemyśl in south-eastern Poland it is discovered that Švejk is a Czech. The major who finds out wants to hang him at once but a captain present insists on a court-martial. At the court, General Fink von Finkelstein wants to hang Švejk without red tape too but one of the other officers suggests checking with Švejk’s unit with a view to rooting out perhaps a whole nest of spies. The next morning a telegram comes from Švejk’s unit with the instruction to send him to brigade headquarters without delay. General Fink von Finkelstein is enraged by being deprived of an execution. At the brigade staff headquarters, Colonel Gerbich is now in command. Gerbich suffers from gout.

At meals it was his favourite occupation to tell everybody how his toe oozed and continually sweated, so that he had to keep it in cotton wool, and that these exudations smelled like sour oxtail soup. (p. 719)

Otherwise he’s a jovial commander who doesn’t bother about discipline. When Švejk is brought before him, Dub happens to be in the office. Dub is only there due to a touch of concussion after being thrown from a horse, which greatly amused his fellow officers. At those times when Gerbich’s toe is quiet, his office is always full of various ranks to whom he likes to tell very old and dirty jokes.

Dub is ranting at Švejk when Gerbich’s toe suddenly acts up again. They all rush out, except Dub. When he says something, Gerbich throws an ink pot at him. When peace is restored, a relieved Gerbich gives Švejk a new uniform and sends him back to his battalion, which is now in a small Ukrainian town beyond Lviv. That place is full of artillery and baggage train encampments and soldiers of various regiments come out of every house (p. 724).

Like an elite among them all, Reich Germans were strolling about offering the Austrians cigarettes from their lavish supplies. In the Reich German field kitchens in the square there were even whole barrels from which they tapped beer for the men, who fetched rations of it for their lunch and supper. The neglected Austrian soldiers with their bellies distended by filthy concoctions of sweet chicory hung around them like greedy cats.

The thunder of distant guns can be heard. At the main headquarters at any hour of the day, this or that Jew is being battered on suspicion of spreading rumours. After Švejk tracks down his comrades, Vaňek tells him his old uniform was found at the lake so he’d recorded him as having drowned while bathing. Now the existence of two Švejk uniforms will cause an accounting issue, which may mean an inspection.

After 750 pages both Lieutenant Dub and Cadet Biegler have also returned to the battalion, this time at each other’s throats, but it is there that the novel ends, unfinished. Already seriously ill, Jaroslav Hašek died on 3 January 1923.

Graham Greene in Kenya

Graham Greene in Kenya

Graham Greene went to Kenya in 1953 to report on the Mau Mau revolt. Is anyone else repelled by the turd-polishing of British colonialism evident in the Kenya chapter in his 1980 memoir Ways of Escape? It wasn’t as if he didn’t have enough time to reflect on the experience. Would he ever have similarly glossed over the activities of the Americans or the French?

Just look at this selection of quotes (with emphasis added for clarity):

“The liberal administrator… had been honestly planning a land in which the position of the African would gradually, very gradually, improve…”

“…the old settler… surrounded by sixty thousand acres of his own ranching land…”

“The Kikuyu were not savage, they made good clerks and stewards…”

“Now the margin of profit was threatened… The Mau Mau stole and slashed, the best labour disappeared.”

“They had been settled, in some parts of Kenya, a third as long as the Kikuyu.”

The British land grab in Kenya had begun in the 1890s. The nature of this invasion prompted Winston Churchill to write privately in 1908 … “It looks like a butchery. If the House of Commons gets hold of it, all our plans… will be under a cloud. Surely it cannot be necessary to go on killing these defenceless people on such an enormous scale.”

“…unused land would one day have to be sequestered…”

“Even though the extreme conservative farmers were dying out they could not avoid all responsibility for what had occurred.”

“…somewhere… there must have existed that archetypal figure who would slap his servant’s face if he replied to him in English.”

The white settlers in Kenya were notorious for flogging their employees, as was their judiciary for turning a blind eye to it.

“… neither the trigger-happy East African Rifles, the European police nor the Home Guard came out of the struggle unstained.”

Even the right-wing Daily Mail (12/04/11) can elaborate starkly on this last Greene quote.

“The British crackdown was brutal and almost certainly what today would be termed a disproportionate response. Thousands of Kenyans died in the guerrilla fighting. A thousand were convicted of capital offences and hanged. Many more – perhaps up to 300,000 – suspected of being Mau Mau or even just associating with the insurgents were detained in camps where sanitation was rudimentary, food inadequate, and discipline often brutal and unrelenting.  Beatings are said to have been a daily occurrence. According to evidence in long-concealed official documents now being produced for a compensation court case in London, inmates were tortured, castrated and raped.”

The true moral of colonial war is only hinted at once by Greene, perhaps as flippantly as when he likens the conflict to Jeeves taking to the jungle, having sworn to kill Wooster. He touches on it when he quotes a priest being asked an awkward question by an African. Didn’t God… put the sea between us so that we shouldn’t interfere with each other?

The same moral is unfortunately absent from the American Apocalypse Now with its ending that echoes the way Thucydides in The Peloponnesian War makes Pericles sound like Hitler. It is because your resolution is weak that my policy appears to be mistaken.

At least it is crystal clear in one of the Rambo films, of all things, where Richard Crenna tells it like it is to a Russian in Afghanistan. It’s like us in Vietnam. You shouldn’t be here.

In other words, get out.