A few nights ago I talked by telephone to an old classmate, Terry Klein.
In the course of conversation Terry mentioned Closely Watched Trains, a small masterpiece of a film by the Czech director Jiiří Menzel, based on a story by Bohumil Hrabal.
We had both seen the film when it first came out in 1966.
Terry pointed out that Menzel, after a hiatus of forty years, is back on the American scene with I Served The King Of England, a film finished in 2006.
I have not seen that film yet, and Terry recommended it highly.
In turn I asked Terry whether he had read what is generally considered the defining Czech novel, Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Švejk
"Švejk" is "Schweik" in German as far as I know and gives roughly the right pronunciation I suppose. It is also how the name is often transliterated into English, so I will use that form.
Terry said he had not read the book.
I had not read or looked at it myself in a decade or more, so I spent some time at the end of the telephone cord (I had picked up the corded one rather than the walk-around) reconnoitering my book cases to find the novel and give Terry a precise reference to the English translation.
Eventually I found it.
My version is the unabridged translation from the Czech by Cecil Parrot, published by Penguin as Jaroslav Hašek, The Good Soldier Svejk And his Fortunes In The World War (1974).
Having taken the book out of the bookcase, I could not resist reading it again, which I did for some hours the next day.
It is a jolly picaresco and running gag book of a novel, retailing the adventures of the seeming simpleton, good soldier Schweik, under the terminally paranoid Austro-Hungarian monarchy in its last inglorious gasp, when incompetence was universal among the elite and every idiot was a savant.
For American readers forty years ago, the incompetence of the Austrians, with their systematic bureaucracy and secret police, was echoed in the very similar system which had developed in the Soviet Union under Stalin, under whom the state, far from withering away, became as oppressive and absurd as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, though the economic systems were completely different.
Every time one reads over a great book again, one finds out something new about the book, about oneself and how one has grown and changed, and about the times one lives in.
That is almost the definition of a classic--once is not enough.
So with Hasek's novel, which is if anything even funnier the second time around.
The next day I got through to Schweik's disappearance into a military hospital, and later jail, for being marked as a malingerer trying to avoid serving in the abattoirs that were the trenches of World War I.
Schweik, though rheumatic and hobbled, is actually trying to do his duty, since, as he puts it, he qualifies as "cannon fodder".
The military bureaucracy, on the other hand, occupied by hordes of pretended half wits trying to avoid service, cannot grasp that behind the seeming half wit who is Schweik there is an even greater half wit--to wit, the real one, who is trying to get back into the army after having been recalled and though he is old enough to be a grandfather.
I am told that Joseph Heller's Catch 22, another masterpiece, drew inspiration from Hasek's earlier novel. They are in the same spirit, though much different in incident. Both books are mordantly antiwar, as every sane man must be whether or not he has been drawn into the ranks of fighting one.
Having put down the book and amid the chuckles of the second time around, a new and disconcerting perspective began to emerge.
The old Soviet Union is history, and the United States has now gone through a generation of intense jingo and sustained belligerence that has brought it to the verge of bankruptcy and collapse.
That, combined with the absurdities of the American bureaucracy, the unalloyed greed and inefficiency of American private enterprise, and the state of U.S. "education"--which is abysmal--gave me pause.
In the past forty years, then, has not The Good Soldier Švejk, which was once about Austro-Hungary, then about the old Soviet Union, now become the story of the United States?
Nor did the new perspective stop there. Recalling the conversation with Terry, I thought back to the film he had mentioned, Closely Watched Trains, which is the story of a young fellow who weathers the NAZI occupation of Czechoslovakia by ignoring it, though serving as a low-ranking functionary. Giddily sensible, he proceeds with his own sexual awakening.
In that sense it is what the Germans call a Bildungsroman, but with a Rabelaisian twist and in reverse. The hero's sexual quest, as it turns out, centers about finding a cure for his premature ejaculation. And instead of being "educated" in what must be learned to make his way in the world, the hero, young and blithe, rather learns how to ignore the society around him as much as possible while dealing with what is a real and unavoidable personal problem for him.
On the surface, The Good Soldier Švejk and Closely Watched Trains may seem very different works.
On the other hand, there is no question that Menzel knew Hašek. It soon becomes clear that the difference is the surface.
The second time around the unifying theme comes in a flash: both Schweik and the young hero of Menzel's film, Milos, are classic "idiots" in the root sense of the word, which was coined by the ancient Greeks and which meant, as "idiot", someone who withdraws from all public life and lives in his own private reality.
Schweik and Milos are both idiots, then, in both senses of the word, ancient and modern, and both, as idiots, stumble into serving absurd regimes.
I am sure this is scratching the surface of many deeper and more complex themes that can also be excavated in Heller's Catch 22, but that is as far I go at the moment.
For those who have not seen Menzel's earlier film I will not give away the ending. But I will say that it is not only a sobering climax, but also at the very end in a way yet another kind of premature ejaculation by Milos, with a quick and premature response by a NAZI soldier.
Terry highly recommends Menzel's new film. As it turns out, Closely Watched Trains cut so close to the bone of the Communist regime in 1966 that Menzel was banned from directing films for seven years, which accounts for part of the hiatus since he was last seen prominently in the U.S.
I recommend both the old film and the old book. Both now cut to the bone of American life in a degree I would never have imagined in 1966.
For classic film and classic book once is not enough.
E. A. Costa [copyright]