HAŠEK , Jaroslav
The Good Soldier Švejk
‘So they’ve killed Ferdinand,’ said the charwoman to Mr Svejk who, having left the army many years before, when a military medical board had declared him to be chronically feeble-minded, earned a livelihood by the sale of dogs – repulsive mongrel monstrosities for whom he forged pedigrees. Apart from this occupation, he was afflicted with rheumatism, and was just rubbing his knees with embrocation.
‘Which Ferdinand, Mrs Müller?’ asked Svejk, continuing to massage his knees. ‘I know two Ferdinands. One of them does jobs for Prusa the chemist, and one day he drank a bottle of hair oil by mistake; and then there’s Ferdinand Kokoska who goes round collecting manure. They wouldn’t be any great loss, either of ‘em.’
‘No, it’s the Archduke Ferdinand, the one from Konopiste, you know Mr Svejk, the fat, pious one.’ ‘Good Lord!’ exclaimed Svejk, ‘that’s a fine thing. And where did this happen?’
Why in Gods name don’t you think’, bawled one of the members of the commission.
‘Humbly report, I don’t think because it’s forbidden to soldiers to think on duty. When I was in the 91 st regiment some years ago our captains always used to say: A soldier mustn’t think for himself. His superiors do it for him.’
‘I think it’s splendid to get oneself run through with a bayonet, and also that it’s not bad to get a bullet in the stomach. It’s even grander when you’re torn to pieces by a shell and you see that your legs and belly are somewhere remote from you…’
‘Humbly report sir, I’m awfully happy’, replied the good soldier Svejk. ‘It’ll be really marvellous when we both fall dead together for his Imperial Majesty and the Royal Family…’
Haf you viped your arsch?’ the major general asked Svejk.
‘Humbly report sir, everything’s in order.’
‘Von’t you sheet no more?’
‘Humbly report sir, I’ve finished.’
‘Vell now pull your hoses op and shtand at attention again…’
Svejk in his full splendour was already standing in front of the major-general who delivered a short address to him in German: ‘Respect for superiors, knowledge of service regulations and presence of mind mean everything in wartime….this man must be promoted at once and at the next opportunity his name must be put forward for the Bronze Medal for meticulous execution of duties and perfect knowledge of…… but you know what I mean
As the troops passed through and camped in the neighbourhood there could be seen everywhere little heaps of human excrement of international extraction belonging to all the peoples of Austria, Germany, and Russia. The excrement of all nationalities and of confessions lay side by side or heaped on top of one another without quarrelling among themselves
I found the author of my obituary in one of Prague’s wine bars on the stroke of midnight, the hour when its shuts its doors in accordance with some imperial ruling dating from the 18th April, 1856.
His eyes were fixed on the ceiling. The tables were being relieved of their stained tablecloths. I sat down at his and said in an affable way: ‘Permit me to ask whether this seat is free.’
He went on scrutinising some unrecognisable mark on the ceiling which seemed to have captured his interest, before replying in a reasonable enough way: ‘It is, but the place is about to close; I doubt whether they’ll serve you.’
I took hold of his arm and he turned to face me. He spent a while observing me without a word. Finally he said in a quiet voice: ‘Excuse me, but haven’t you been in Russia?’
I laughed: ‘You recognise me, then? I was killed in a low Russian dive brawling with some rough drunken sailors.’
The colour went out of him. ‘You are… it’s you….’
‘Exactly right,’ I said emphatically, ‘I was killed by sailors in a tavern in Odessa and in the light of my death you wrote my obituary.’
Words came in the form of a faintly audible gasp: ‘You’ve read what I wrote about you?’
‘Naturally. It’s a very interesting obituary, apart from one or two little misunderstandings. And unusually long into the bargain. Even His Imperial Highness received fewer lines upon His royal decease. Your magazine devoted 152 lines to him and 186 to myself. At 35 hellers* a line (how miserable a pittance they used to give journalists) that makes 55 crowns and 15 hellers in all.’
‘What exactly do you want from me?’ he asked in panic. ‘Do you want those 55 crowns and 15 hellers?’
‘Keep your money,’ I replied, ‘the dead do not demand a fee for their obituaries.’