The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek, first published in 1921, remains a timeless and unsurpassed anti-war satire. It’s the most translated work of Czech literature. I read it first in Bulgarian when I was nine, although it’s not a children’s book. Today I would like to share my favourite excerpt.
The main protagonist, infantry soldier Švejk, who in his civilian life was a dealer in stolen dogs in his native Prague, speaks to sapper Vodička.
“When the war is over, let’s see each other”, said Švejk. You will find me every day after six o’clock in “At the Chalice” (a pub that has since become iconic).
“Then, see you after the war, at six o’clock in the evening,” Vodička said.
“Better come at six-thirty to be safe if I’m late,” Švejk replied.
The last time I thought of this passage was during the Yugoslav war of 1999 when I was reporting from Belgrade.
The Good Soldier Švejk is very popular in Serbia and across the Balkans. The good-humoured and simple-minded Švejk has always been a symbol of popular wisdom and resilience so much stronger than the destructive force of war-mongering politicians, who did not deserve the honour to be protagonists of the novel.
In late May 1999, I had chosen a pub in Belgrade to meet with friends “at six o’clock after the war”. But I was arrested on 25 May (for taking too many photos and asking too many questions) and ordered to leave the country within 48 hours. So I missed the end of the war, which came days later, on 10 June.
On my way back from Belgrade to Sofia, on 26 May, a US plane bombarded the bridge I was crossing. I escaped unscathed but developed a supernatural sense for locating aeroplanes as if I were a radar. Thankfully, this sixth sense lasted only two days after the shock, and today I’m no longer damned with such a ‘talent’.
The Ukraine war will also end – hopefully soon. Pundits say Vladimir Putin cannot afford to wage war beyond 9 May, Victory Day in Russia, which makes a lot of sense. This war is against everybody’s interest, including Putin’s – but he chose to self-inflict his worst defeat in almost 23 years in power on himself.
Now the time has come for his diplomats and propagandists to whitewash his defeat into triumph. Once they are ready, we shall have peace.
The problem, of course, is that until this happens, there is a risk that many innocent lives will be lost. A ceasefire in expectation of a peace agreement is desperately needed, as well as credible mechanisms to enforce it.
The story of The Good Soldier Švejk remained unfinished because Hašek died soon after completing volume four (of the planned six) in 1923. Another Czech author, Karel Vaněk, took over the sequel and imagined what Švejk and Vodička did to make sure they kept their appointment at six o’clock after the war.
For my part, I will make sure I come to my favourite pub at six o’clock after the war. Maybe Švejk will show up as well.
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Views are the author’s.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Alice Taylor]