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Found in the translation:
a Czech hero for our times

English-speaking readers can finally discover Svejk in all his coarse, comic lunacy

Sunday, December 24, 2000


By Bob Hicks



When Zenny K. Sadlon and Mike Joyce took their new translation of "The Good Soldier Svejk" to the publishing houses, they met two responses: "How do you pronounce that?" (it's "shvayk," rhymes with "bake") and "Not interested."

The rejection shocked and angered the translators. After all, Svejk, Czech novelist Jaroslav Hasek's idiot-hero of the World War I trenches, is one of the past century's great literary creations, and certainly one of the funniest.

Josef Svejk is a hero for our times. He lies, cheats, drinks. He makes his modest living by buying stolen mongrel dogs and reselling them as purebreds. A certified imbecile, he survives on his wits. And although he becomes a soldier in the great war, somehow he never seems to go to battle.

Coarse, comic and deeply distrustful of all authority, Svejk acts for everyone everywhere convinced that whatever foolishness the ruling class is up to, it's bound to mean misery for the guy on the street. In a world where the greedy and ambitious slam the public from crisis to crisis, gratuitously wrecking daily life as they destroy states and pull down civilizations, Svejk represents the underground -- a passive-aggressive resister who beats the rules of the game by applying his own crazy logic to them.

Their version of Hasek's rollicking novel, Sadlon and Joyce fervently believed, restored the earthy vigor and profane comedy that had been buried beneath layers of numbing politeness in the two previous English translations. Even if they'd completed only the first of Hasek's four Svejk books, it was a better mousetrap. So why didn't anyone want it?

Gallingly, the reasons had nothing to do with the book's quality. The world of publishing, they'd discovered, has stern gatekeepers, and the gatekeepers weren't going to let them inside. Despite its popularity in Europe, where it's considered a 20th-century masterpiece, "Svejk" remains almost an underground discovery in the United States. Publishers saw no reason to spend money on a competing edition to the standard version, Cecil Parrott's 1973 translation, and dilute an already modest pool of sales.

A few years ago, that would have been the end of the story. Go home, lick your wounds, get on with your life. But a quiet upheaval is going on -- unruly and largely unnoticed by readers, but with the democratizing potential to change the rules of the publishing game.

So Sadlon and Joyce joined the revolution. Shut out by traditional publishers, they rolled the dice on the rapidly changing world of alternative publishing.

First they put their "Svejk" on the Web as an e-book. Then they looked to the emerging technology of POD, or print on demand, which bypasses traditional publishing's large speculative press runs and prints small numbers of books as orders come in.

Dangers abound in this low-key process, which provides few services except a way around the publishing roadblock. The print on demand business is flooded with vanity projects, and even the best books run the risk of being dismissed as amateur by association. Publishing quality can be haphazard, and when it comes to pushing the product, authors are on their own: Sadlon and Joyce sent out more than 30,000 individually tailored e-mails hoping to snag shelf space and reviews.

Happily, their crusade has paid off. At long last English-speaking readers have the opportunity to discover Svejk in all his brash, satiric crudeness. He now frolics unleashed through his own story with all the fresh loony energy that so captivates European readers but has been largely missing from Parrott's dryly understated version and Paul Selver's truncated, heavily edited and sanitized version from 1930. And that is true cause for celebration.

Hasek, who began to sketch out his shadowy everyman in 1911, before Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo and sparked the war that would bring Svejk into such brilliant focus, planned six volumes of "The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Svejk." He completed three books and part of the fourth before dying in 1923 at age 39, probably of tuberculosis and possibly of drink.

Parrott's translation is discursive, circuitous, very English in the way it draws out Hasek's tale, sometimes doing interminable setups for a shaggy-dog punch line. Joyce and Sadlon, a Czech native who defected to the West in 1972 at age 19 and has worked as a translator and interpreter for, among others, former President Bush and Gen. Colin Powell, cut through the excess baggage. Their lean, taut language is much more conversational, much quicker and much funnier line for line.

Unlike K., fellow Czech Franz Kafka's stunted stand-in for modern intellectual man, the rascal Svejk belongs to the men and women of the workaday world -- the bartenders, cleaning women, gamekeepers, petty larcenists, lathe operators, janitors, drunkards, office workers, shopkeepers, undertakers, adulterers, nightclub bouncers, butchers, farmers, cab drivers and others who populate Hasek's imagination as they stumble through the lunacies of the first World War.

It's clear that Hasek created the mold for the likes of "Catch-22" and "Slaughterhouse 5." Yet Hasek's humor also has a more knowing, European wink than its American offspring -- a sense of personal triumph but cultural doom.

This new translation makes brilliant sense of the rambling, episodic nature of Hasek's storytelling. What can seem like a flaw in Parrott's version becomes in Joyce and Sadlon's translation central to the book's method and message. The story leapfrogs from incident to incident in precisely the way that Svejk evades issues: sidestepping them like a crab, free-associating away from the subject at hand so adeptly that his interrogators lose track of where they started.

It's a triumph of the underclass, a way of flummoxing the authority of an obtuse or illegitimate state, a disobedience without disobeying. And in central Europe, where subtly encoded resistance was long a way of life, it's immediately understood. In this sense, "Svejk" captures an essential element of an entire entrenched culture.

Yet as droll as Svejk is, and as thoroughly as his targets deserve duping, Hasek's elevation of him to heroic status raises some intriguing questions. In the end, can passive aggression do anything except save your own skin? Is this part of the historic problem of central Europe? Has it been a region too willing to suffer and quietly evade the known evil, too little willing to do straightforward battle for its rights?

Then again, as Hasek reminds us, in wartime the foolishness is an unstoppable wave, and honest resistance can get you shot -- by your own side, not the other. "Don't mistake this for a court where you'll be questioned by some goofy civilians," the imperious military Judge Advocate Bernis warns Svejk during one of his many scrapes with a law more concerned about image and procedure than justice. "Your only hope of deliverance from a stiff and just punishment is to confess."

Svejk confesses freely to all sorts of things, but with such a dazzling display of situational ethics and extenuating circumstances that he inevitably turns all perils to his advantage. Denounced as a traitor, a deserter, a madman, a malingerer, he escapes all punishment and is adopted as an indispensable batman, or field servant, by a series of conniving officers who instinctively appreciate his talents for finding a good bottle of brandy or disposing of an unwanted mistress.

Hasek's scabrous caricatures are devastatingly funny, as sharply etched as anything by Daumier. A reader might laugh to tears at the fate of the odious little police detective Bretschneider, devoured by his own dogs; or at the arguments among duty-dodgers in the military infirmary about whether feigning rheumatism, anemia or rabies is a better way out of the war than actual poisoning or amputation; or at the bitter regret of the hard-boozing Field Chaplain Katz, who loses Svejk's services (twice!) in a card game.

As in Dostoevski's novels and many others from the 19th and early 20th centuries, the uncomfortable question of anti-Semitism arises at times, never as an important motif but as a part of the background. Do Hasek's casual toss-offs reflect his own opinions, or the biases of the characters he creates? Certainly Jews were targets in central Europe long before Hitler came along. In a way, it makes little difference what Hasek believed. "Svejk" reflects an ugly reality of its time and place, and for a modern reader it's fitting that a landmark novel about one world war presages, even unconsciously, the most vital element of the next.

Sadlon and Joyce's new translation is so joyful and audacious in its headlong hurtle through Hasek's story that it deserves to become the standard English version. Unfortunately, that probably won't happen. Tied to the problems as well as the possibilities of print on demand, it lacks not only the promotional push a large publisher could give it but also a lot of the niceties of bookmaking. Small irritations are sprinkled through the type, such as the consistent use of "lay" or "laying" where "lie" or "lying" are meant. And Joseph Lada's wonderful, crude illustrations, which have accompanied most editions since the very first, are missing.

Still, it's the storytelling that counts. And with book one off and running, Sadlon and Joyce plan to have the second, third and fourth books finished and available by the end of next year. It should be well worth the wait.