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Book 96: Czech Rep. (English) – The Good Soldier Švejk = Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka (Jaroslav HAŠEK)


The members of the commission… were remarkably divided in their conclusions about Švejk. Half of them insisted that Švejk was a ‘half-wit’, while the other half insisted he was a scoundrel who was trying to make fun of the war.
’It’ll be a bloody miracle,’ roared the chairman of the commission at Švejk, ‘if we don’t get the better of you.’
Švejk looked at the whole commission with the godlike composure of an innocent child.
The senior staff doctor came up close to Švejk:
’I’d like to know, you swine, what you’re thinking about now?’
’Humbly report, sir, I don’t think at all.’
’Himmeldonnerwetter,’ bawled one of the members of the commission, rattling his sabre. ‘So he doesn’t think at all. Why in God’s name don’t you think, you Siamese elephant?’
’Humbly report, I don’t think because that’s forbidden to soldiers on duty.’

The commission’s dilemma about the good soldier Švejk is also our dilemma. It’s impossible to know which Švejk is the real one. What is beyond doubt is that he became one of the greatest and most lovable characters in literature.
I don’t think there’s any need for a spoiler alert that the Austro-Hungarian Empire lost the First World War and was soon to be no more; and after reading this hilarious account of its wartime activities there’s no need to wonder why.
It always remains ambiguous as to whether Švejk is a pure idiot or hard at work sabotaging the war effort.
He spends the war ‘trying to catch up with his battalion’ – or is he evading the war? And the same goes for his people – the Czechs were marched off by their Austrian and Hungarian masters to a war they had no interest in winning; it was not their empire. A lieutenant compares being Czech to being a member of a secret organisation. Czechoslovakia was one of the many captive nations that escaped when it disintegrated in 1918.
Švejk is always loitering around the periphery of the war, but that doesn’t stop him from changing its course.
Like Catch-22, the novel satirises the ridiculousness of the army system, if anyone should actually try to take it seriously. And I wonder if he inspired Forrest Gump?
Some of my favourite moments were the ciphers debacle, the blown up chauffeur who goes to army heaven, the army poster that Švejk takes literally, the woman whose every whim he obeys… No matter what the situation, Švejk has a story to tell and at one time even when asleep answers ‘Present!’ and starts to tell another tale, like that other great Czech invention, the robot…
Hašek died before finishing his masterpiece; but I like to think the war would have finished just as Švejk finally rejoined his batallion.

HAŠEK, Jaroslav (1883 – 1923), The Good Soldier Švejk and his fortunes in the world war, translated by Cecil Parrott, London, Penguin Classics, 2000, ISBN 978-0-140-44991-4
(originally published in Czech, 1926)

Vietnam (English) – The Sympathizer (Viet Thanh NGUYEN)

Then the guitarist began strumming the chords of another song. They do sing songs like this, Man said. It was Yesterday by the Beatles. As the three of us joined in singing, my eyes grew moist. What was it like to live in a time when one’s fate was not war, when one was not led by the craven and the corrupt, when one’s country was not a basket case kept alive only through the intravenous drip of American aid? I knew none of these young soldiers around me except for my blood brothers and yet I confess that I felt for them all, lost in their sense that within days they would be dead, or wounded, or imprisoned, or humiliated, or abandoned, or forgotten. They were my enemies, and yet they were also brothers-in-arms. Their beloved city was about to fall, but mine was soon to be liberated. It was the end of their world, but only a shifting of worlds for me. So it was that for two minutes we sang  with all our hearts, feeling only for the past and turning our gaze from the future, swimmers doing the backstroke toward a waterfall.

 

I posted on Vietnam back in October 2014, on the long poem The Tale of Kieu, but since then I decided to limit myself to novels, so I had to re-read Vietnam. No hardship, for I discovered this wonderful book which deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

It begins with the chaotic US evacuation as Saigon fell to the communist North Vietnamese in 1975, the end of the Vietnam War as it is known in the West. The protagonist, a captain, flees to the US with his general, who little suspects that the captain is spying for the communists. He becomes enmeshed in and apparently enjoys the American way of life. The captain is split in many ways – half French half Vietnamese, a communist who lived under capitalism in South Vietnam and the US, a Vietnamese and an American. In fact he is a symbol of the split personality of Vietnam itself – North/South, Communist/Capitalist, not to mention of the US, whose double standards of the time are also on full display. There are some unforgettable scenes – the desperate last snafu days as the US fled South Vietnam, the murder, the interrogation, and the Hollywood war movie for which the captain is a reluctant and ignored consultant, and which ends up like a mini war in itself.

Nguyen’s writing is spectacular, dripping with all the irony the situation begs for (his handler is literally a ‘faceless man’, and I’m sure that a ‘sleeper’ agent would find it difficult to sleep!) It was maybe the hardest book so far to choose just one quote to showcase, I wanted to share so many! I can’t recommend it too highly.

 

NGUYEN, Viet Thanh (1971 – ), The Sympathizer, London, Corsair, 2016, ISBN 978-1-4721-51360 (first published 2015)

Book 88: Belgium (Flemish/Dutch) – De Intrede van Christus in Brussel = Christ’s Entry into Brussels (Dimitri VERHULST)

 

In recent years, when travelling abroad, it had struck me that I was having to explain ever more frequently that there was no civil war raging here. The disconnect between political discourse and civil life could hardly have been more obvious. Flemings and Walloons weren’t staring each other down with swords drawn; our bricklayers worked together on the same sites, and what they built stood nice and straight; the Mint Orchestra consisted of musicians from north and south, and nevertheless they could play La Finta Giardiniera in the same key; people married each other across the language borders, and in their households they fought the battle of doors and pans neither more nor less than anyone else, they found the same warmth, the same chill in each other’s arms. But the populist slogans of our loudest dog-whistlers gave some outside observes the opposite impression, and kept important investors away.

 

[My translation]

 

I had been intending to reserve Belgium in order to finally get around to reading that most prolific of thriller writers, Georges Simenon, but meanwhile I had stumbled onto this fascinating novel, and it became my choice.

It was no doubt inspired by fellow Belgian James Ensor’s famous Symbolist painting, “The Entry of Christ into Brussels, 1888”, although as Verhulst points out, the Holy Family would seem to have a special affinity with Belgium going by the number of their visitations (especially by the Virgin Mary).

Like the painting by Ensor (and Bosch before him) it has a deliciously misanthropic view of humanity. It gets off to a depressing, workaday, cynical start, not what you might expect for such an epoch-making event, with nondescript weather. The people of Brussels can speak every language – but won’t talk to one another. (And the Messiah’s return leads to a frantic search for an Aramaic speaker). Jesus’ second coming is pre-announced in the news feeds, but apparently no one believes it, certainly they don’t communicate it to anyone else. Ironically, the most worried about it seems to be the Church, over sins like priestly paedophilia.

Since the whole novel is taking the piss out of Brussels, I was expecting the Maneken Pis to put in a cameo appearance, and I wasn’t disappointed.

The Belgians’ self-deprecating nature stops the rest of the world (and Belgians themselves?) from realising what a wonderful country they’ve got. It was almost too unremittingly jaundiced for me, maybe too much for some.

If you don’t like sarcasm, steer away from this book. But in the end I loved it – the best satire I’ve read since Jonathan Swift. It is often very funny – such as the Life-of-Brian moment where despite his denials a hippie is mistaken for the returned Christ, is mobbed and ends up in an institution convinced of his divinity.

For such a slim novel, I learnt an enormous amount about Belgium (reality and stereotypes), which Verhulst calls ‘geography’s hypochondriac’.

 

VERHULST, Dimitri (1972 – ), De intrede van Christus in Brussel (in het jaar 2000 en oneffen ongeveer), Amsterdam/Antwerpen, Contact, 2011, ISBN 9789025437534

English title: Christ’s Entry into Brussels (in the year 2000 and something, or thereabouts), London, Portobello, 2014