Though Not Perfect, Truly Great

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The Good Soldier Švejk by Jarolav Hašek

4/5

That I finished this book with a thirst – sadly, never to be quenched – for more, and that, apparently, I always had a smile on my face whilst reading this epic tale of our eponymous hero’s never-to-be-completed journey to the front, tells you all you need to know about how much pleasure I got out of this work.

That’s not to say it’s perfect. Far from it. There’s a definite need for pruning in places which, again sadly, can never really be done as the author passed away before completing what feels like a draft-work on the the road to a masterwork.

However, the manner in which this tale is told and the perspective that it presents mean that momentum and reader interest are maintained throughout, even during the odd lulls and lags that I’m sure the author would’ve returned to had circumstances allowed.

Though employing a deceptively simplistic storytelling technique, this work addresses some grand themes, and it is this technique that allows the commentary it does make to be even more effective, even more palatable and even more personalised.

In a nutshell, this is a biting satire and damning commentary on the tragically dehumanising yet farcical (the source of the humour that propels this journey from beginning to end) effect of state and bureaucratic mechanisms upon the individual. By placing this story during the heightened states of nations at war, this satire is able to live and breathe through the people that are affected by the Kafkaesque hyper-reality that ensues at such times.

And it is the individuals we meet along our way that really bring this piece alive, give it its momentum and give the reader an almost visceral sense of what it means to be caught up in the machinations of state, bureaucracy, tradition, and custom. Although many of these characters are larger than life on a Dickensian scale, they are instantly recognisable types that we may meet upon life’s merry path.

Of course, being so rich in characters, it would be amiss of me if I were not to focus on at least the main-man, Švejk, but he, as with all those other characters we get to know along the way, is so rich and rounded that I could only do him and his creator a disservice by attempting to summarise him in a few lines here.

Suffice to say, you will smile and you will laugh as you witness this everyman character reflect and in a sense be empowered by the disdain that is felt for him, and all us minions, back upon those serving the self-perpetuating myths of state.

Though the pomposity of officialdom is lampooned, there is the sense that they and we are all inescapably, without sanction of some kind, caught up in the dehumanising web of the institutions of state. That the writer is able to retain their and our humanity throughout in the face of such Orwellian and Kafkaesque forces, whilst maintaining such a high level of humour throughout, is a great great credit to the skill of the author and a commentary on his own basic humanity.

An original, in every sense of the word, with a scattering of the fairy dust of, for example, writers such as Cervantes,  and the aforementioned Dickens, Kafka or Orwell, which takes it above and beyond the common-or-garden and places it in the canon of great literature.

Despite these grandiose claims, this is an instantly accessible work that can be enjoyed for enjoyment’s sake – it is engaging, amusing and entertaining. This fact alone is enough to recommend it to most. The fact that this enjoyment factor is maintained throughout whilst some of the grand themes of life are addressed takes this work to that other level which, despite its shortcomings, makes it essential reading.

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