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Lilla Tőke

Idiots on the Ball:

vejkism as
a Survival Strategy
in the East European
Szólitsd, mint méla boruszáj grotesque universe. The antithetical nature of
A szorgalmas szegényeket Josef K.’s and Švejk’s positions discloses itself
Rágd a szivükbe, nem muszáj
Hősnek lenni ha nem lehet1 in the realm where one pole is the iden-
—Attila József tification with power to the point where
the victim develops solidarity with his own
Eastern Europe entered the 20th century in a executioner, and the other pole the non-
state of growing nationalism, socio-economic acceptance of power through the refusal
crisis, semi-agrarian, conservative and highly to take seriously anything at all; which is
bureaucratic institutions, and political authori- to say: in the realm between the absolute
tarianism. Overall, ‘aggressive expansionism, of the serious—K.—and the absolute of
police terror, and military conflicts’ (Berend the nonserious—Švejk. (Kundera 2003:
2003: 236) dominated domestic and inter- 48–49.)
national relations in the first half of the century.
The communist authoritarian systems estab- My own interest lies in exploring how Švejk’s
lished after World War II intensified existing absolute non-seriousness becomes a survival
trends of political favouritism, abuse of power, tactic, which helps precisely to avoid K.’s tragic
state surveillance, lawlessness and corruption. end in The Trial (Der Process, 1925).
In such distressing historical conditions, the on- Contrary to John Snyder’s argument, I
going political crises had lasting effects on the do not believe that Švejk’s heroism shares Don
population, who had to develop intricate skills Quixote’s attempt to conquer all evil in the
to satisfy their most urgent and basic needs for world. Peter Stern observes correctly that ‘the
food, shelter and safety in conditions of perpetu- connection between the two novels, taken for
al existential instability. granted by many critics, is far from obvious’
Jaroslav Hašek’s novel The Good Sol- (Stern 1992: 104). Švejk’s figure aligns itself
dier Švejk and His Fortunes in the World War perhaps more with Sancho Panza-like ‘kynic’
(Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové heroes (Steiner 2000: 37) who linger ‘at the
války, 1923), a literary product of the historical margins of an unfriendly society’ (Steiner 2000:
crisis of World War I, is a cultural imprint of the 43), in which their much less idealistic, and
above-mentioned pragmatic attitude. Švejk’s much more practical, mission is to survive. San-
grotesque humour and persistent popularity cho, just like Švejk, represents a ‘popular cor-
have long fascinated literary critics. Some con- rective laughter applied to the narrow-minded
nect his character to Hašek’s peculiar personal seriousness of the spiritual pretence [Don
history as a soldier in the war and a ‘Bigamist, Quixote/idealism/ideology—L. T.]’ (Bakhtin
closet homosexual, chronic alcoholic, disci- 1984: 22) and an ‘overwhelming adaptability
plined revolutionary, [and] intellectual parasite’ to inhospitable circumstances’ (Steiner 2000:
(Steiner 2000: 26). Others insist on a close 44). Švejk’s appeal lies precisely in his imbecil-
relationship between Kafka’s absurdly tyranni- ity, shrewdness, enigmatic quality and unpre-
cal bureaucratic world and Hašek’s. Karel Kosík dictability, which make it impossible to turn
was amongst the first to sense the absurd and him into a ‘calculable and disposable thing or
the grotesque as uniquely common traits in quantity’ (Kosík 1995: 85), to be processed and
both Kafka and Hašek’s writing. Their heroes shoved around in a world that is ‘a horrible and
develop an identity in opposition to the ‘Great senseless labyrinth, a world of powerless people
Mechanism’—an anonymous form ‘organizing caught in the net of bureaucratic machinery
people into regiments, battalions, and order’
(Kosík 1995: 83) that is paradoxically senseless
1 ‘Call them, open their eyes wide / Those hard working
and chaotic. Milan Kundera adds an important and penniless / Warn them, ‘no need’ – cry out / ‘For hero-
note to this parallel, insisting on a significant ism that’s headless’.’ (My translation.) This quote by the
famous socialist Hungarian poet Attila József appears as the
difference between Kafka’s and Hašek’s char- forward of Péter Bacsó’s cult film from 1971, The Witness, to
acters in their opposing attitudes towards this be discussed in this paper.

and material gadgets: a world in which man is Jaroslav Hašek’s novel The Good Soldier
powerless in a gadget oriented, alienated real- Švejk and His Fortunes in the World War be-
ity.’ (Kosík 1995: 85–86.) gins with the statement: ‘And so they’ve killed
Literary interpretations regard Švejk, the our Ferdinand.’ (Hašek 1974: 3.) The assassina-
geniáliní idiot (Gatt-Rutter 1991: 6),2 as more tion of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian
than just a popular character in Czech literature. anarchist, the trigger of World War I,
He is a ‘paradigmatic figure’ (Hanáková 2005: is also the event that opens Hašek’s book.
153), coming from a long tradition of folk heroes Through Švejk’s fantastic adventures in the war,
(such as the Czech Hloupý Honza or Hungarian the reader catches a glimpse of the famously in-
Lúdas Matyi) who use their cunning cleverness, efficient and arrogant Austrian bureaucracy, the
shrewdness and slyness to outsmart degenerate senseless brutality of the military, the fundamen-
aristocrats. Švejk lends his name to Švejkism tally corrupt and lethargic administration, the
and Švejking, a ‘behavioural model’ (Steiner overall instability and the aggressively national-
2000: 49) in the East European cultural imagi- istic and repressive political and military imperi-
nation, a fictional response to chronic historical alism that the Czech ethnic minority had to face
traumas. Petra Hanáková is, overall, critical of in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hašek’s char-
such ‘anti-heroic heroism’, claiming it to be acters are all delighted to see the Austrians suf-
ultimately self-deprecating and counter-pro- fer and lose the war. Švejk and his fellow soldiers
ductive in its ‘impassability, inefficiency and lack happily discuss ‘how Austria would be smashed’
of hope’ (Hanáková 2005: 159). In contrast, (Hašek 1974: 207). ‘His Imperial Majesty must
I see Švejk’s ‘main urge for self-preservation’ be completely off his rocker by this time’ says
(Hanáková 2005: 157) as truly heroic in its Švejk at some point. ‘He was never bright, but
recognition of the only option available for the this war’ll certainly finish him.’ (Hašek 1974:
simple man to endure his godforsaken, hostile 207.) The novel’s bitterly ironic tone comes in
world. The Švejkian topos, in my view, works as reaction to the empire’s repressive politics. It is
a cultural hub, around which different, ongoing the result of a mixture of Czech nationalism and
historical crises can come undone. The following anti-imperialist scepticism that saw no future
analysis of this topos will point to a particular with Austria-Hungary and welcomed its doom.
relationship between fiction and reality in East- From the beginning, it was clear that the war
ern Europe, one in which historical conscious- only served Austria’s imperial expansionism, an
ness is elevated, because the ongoing historical ideology and military strategy from which the
ordeal throughout the twentieth century repeat- smaller nations in the empire had already been
edly shattered the life of individuals. Through a suffering. Slowly, the different ethnic groups of
comparative analysis of Jaroslav Hašek’s novel, the defeated Austria-Hungary lost all their ‘hope
The Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in and patience’ (Berend 2003: 287), which gave
the World War, and two films, The Corporal way to protests, revolts, strikes and a general at-
and Others (A tizedes meg a többiek, 1965) mosphere of unrest. Švejk’s indifference towards
and The Witness (A tanú, 1968), I will maintain the war, his cynicism and happiness over Aus-
that Švejkism itself is a response of the imagina- tria’s disintegration, correspond to the general
tion to very real problems created by these his- feelings of the Czech, Slovak and Croat ethnic
torical traumas. By relating the two Hungarian communities towards their ‘beloved’ empire.
film satires to Jaroslav Hašek’s famous novel, Švejk’s existence is inseparably intertwined
I will trace a very distinctive ‘pragmatic shell’ with the tragic history of World War I. The not-
(Hanáková 2005: 153) in the face of the ongoing so-pleasant ‘idylls’ that spin Švejk’s adventures
institutional, ideological and political turmoil forward echo the dreadfulness of the war. Being
in Eastern Europe, arguing that Švejkian prac- ‘much too political’ (Hašek 1974: 100), as he
ticality is in fact an essential collective coping declares himself to be, is a consequence of this
mechanism that emerges time and again in the ‘close encounter’, and it means being alert, as
turbulent historical events of the 1920s, 1940s, well as critical, towards his surroundings. This
1960s and 1990s in Eastern Europe. state of critical, involuntary involvement in the

political sphere characterises East Europeans in Molnár’s behaviour in numerous hope-
general, whose encounter with history has been less situations is presented as the only sensible
similar to a tank coming through their house. response to the chaotic world of the war. His
Since escaping the overwhelming historical sharp mind, tactical brilliance and highly practi-
forces is impossible, Švejk’s life—symbolic of cal thinking help him adjust quickly to the con-
East European existence in general—depends stantly varying circumstances and save not only
on trying to successfully endure it. himself but the rest of the group, too. While he
Coping with historical torrents is also the is clearly ‘in it for himself’, Molnár soon realises
theme of the Hungarian cult film classic from that in order to stay alive he needs the help of
1965, The Corporal and Others (dir. Márton his comrades. His heroism lies in the ability
Keleti), which presents the bizarre military to successfully navigate in the highly complex
chaos at the end of World War II. The film was and dangerous circumstances. The film depicts
meant to fill a vacuum in Hungarian cinema as a Molnár as he desperately tries to ‘make it to
rather serious melodramatic take on the Soviet the shore’, to escape from the tragic historical
liberation of Hungary. Instead it filled another situation into which he and the others, just like
gap, as one of the first film satires after World Švejk in an earlier war, have been thrown.
War II. Corporal Molnár (Imre Sinkovits), a war Péter Bacsó’s Hungarian cult classic The
deserter, is the main hero of the film. By the end Witness reconstructs and satirically comments
of World War II, after three years on the front on the hysterical and pathological atmosphere
lines, Molnár decides that it is time to quit and of the infamous show trials of the early 1950s in
never to return to the battlefield. With a grenade Hungary, with great sensitivity to the particular
necklace around his neck, carrying the alloca- absurdity and brutality that characterised this
tion of his whole battalion, he comes across a era. Pelikán’s quiet, poor, rural idyll is turned
deserted castle, whose only guard appears to upside down when he gets caught in the ma-
be an old-fashioned footman, Albert (Tamás chinery of the communist bureaucratic system.
Major). Soon he finds out that the castle is full Pelikán is first arrested when the police find
of renegades like himself, and he decides to take evidence of illegal pig-slaughter. His crime
command in order to save himself and the others has come out of despair in a country where
from a possible fatal discovery by the Hungarian, ‘The number of animals to be kept in a peasant
Russian or German armies. When a Hungarian household was proscribed, and illegally slaugh-
soldier appears with yet another captured runa- tering a pig was condemned.’ (Berend 1996:
way who deserted from the penalty squad, the 56.) Minister Dániel, who is unexpectedly vis-
group pretends to be the army’s headquarters to iting the levee and Pelikán, is enraged by the
save themselves and the newcomer. police’s accusations, and lashes into a ferocious
Much of the comedy in the film comes from dyad, defending his old friend by describing his
the confusion over which army is about to en- immaculate, heroic communist past. Pelikán,
danger the small group. The Hungarian national according to the story, saved Dániel from the
army is now under the command of the new, Nazi Gestapo during World War II. The climax
German-supported fascist Arrow Cross govern- of the scene comes when Dániel discloses the
ment, which also has its own military forces.3 cellar where he was hiding with other members
The Russian and the German armies also appear of the communist resistance while the Nazis
frequently, always unexpectedly. But, for Molnár, tortured Pelikán for information.
there is no difference between the Hungarian
army, the Arrow Cross troops, the Germans or
the Russians. Each military force poses an equal 2 See Gatt-Rutter’s endnotes for an extensive list of
threat to him and his group. The goal of this references discussing Švejk as geniáliní idiot.

twisted ‘game’ is to skilfully navigate among the 3 Arrow Cross was the Hungarian fascist military organi-
different threats in the chaotic turmoil of the war. sation supported by the Nyilaskeresztes Párt—Hungarista
Mozgalom (Arrow Cross Party—Hungarianist Movement),
The difficulty of doing so is the main source of a pro-German, anti-Semitic fascist party that ruled the
humour in the film. country between October 1944 and January 1945.

Unfortunately, the cellar is now full of replacing it with a lemon, but its taste does not
ham, lard, sausages and cracklings made from satisfy General Bástya. This time he can only
‘poor Dezső’s’ (the pig’s pet name) dead body, save himself by testifying against his old friend,
a result of Pelikán’s desperate decision to kill Minister Dániel, who in the meantime has been
the pet animal in order to feed his large fam- accused of and put on trial for treachery. Virág
ily in a time of severe meat shortage. Dániel is claims that this is Pelikán’s most important and
embarrassed, while the ‘great hero of commu- final heroic act in the ‘continuously intensifying
nist resistance’ readily confesses to the ‘severe international situation’ and also an opportunity
crime’ and is consequently taken to prison. for Pelikán to recover his ‘heroic communist
While in prison, Pelikán shares a cell with his image’ from World War II. Minister Dániel’s
Arrow Cross ex-torturer and with a Catholic turn of fortune and Pelikán’s hectic fate are both
priest. Although at first it is unclear whether representative of the fears and uncertainties
he will get away with just a fine or will be given characterising the time period.
the death penalty, ultimately he is pardoned—
despite his own insistent confessions of guilt— WHAT’S FOR DINNER?
due to unpredictable bureaucratic manoeuvres
and mysterious ‘high connections’. Soon after Švejkism, in line with my central argument,
his release, a big black car takes Pelikán away has been defined as a ‘defensive use of mental
again, this time to a secret place. Here, ready dimness’ (Petković 2006: 386), a functional
to ‘confess to everything’, he meets Comrade imbecility employed to get by and survive in a
Virág, an important and enigmatic party official. fundamentally unpredictable, absurd and au-
Virág shares his grand plan with Pelikán during thoritarian world. Švejkian practicality stands
a luxurious dinner: in the ‘steadily intensifying for a certain behaviour deeply suspicious of
international situation’ he wants to turn Pelikán official discourses and institutional practices.
into a true hero of communism.4 The roast pig It implies ways of acting with a focus on one’s
on the table reminds Pelikán that he has no immediate and concrete needs as well as on the
other choice than to take the ‘illustrious jobs’ specific means of fulfilling those needs, while
kindly offered to him. consciously ignoring any ideological affiliations
The Švejkian plot of the film, just like the or moral obligations. What stands at the core
world it satirises, is one of delay, coincidence, of Švejkian practicality is a shared experience of
luck and chance, instead of logic. Pelikán’s life history, characterised by complete existential
is subject to complete unpredictability; random unpredictability, abrupt political turns and arti-
forces of the system throw him back and forth ficial changes in social structures. On the level
between prison and prestige. Pelikán is first of the texts, the existential insecurity manifests
made the director of a swimming pool, despite itself in several ways. For instance, Švejk’s
his protest that he is ‘not ideologically well edu- ‘adventurous’ life in World War I consists of
cated’. He fails miserably in his first ‘privileged’ randomly changing masters and relocations, of
job because he lets in the regular people who being in and out of prisons and military hospi-
have tickets and throws out General Bástya, tals. Similarly, Pelikán, who erratically moves in
who is swimming inside by himself without a and out of jail throughout the film, never knows
ticket. After Virág rescues him from prison for whether he will get a fine for his misconduct or
the second time, Pelikán is made the direc- eventually end up with a death sentence. He
tor of an amusement park. But his invention, is equally frequently moved into and removed
the ‘original socialist ghost train’ nearly scares from prestigious Party positions. Corporal
General Bástya to death, so his short-lived ca- Molnár and his team can never be sure whether
reer ends in a prison cell again. Finally, he is ap- they are about to face the Russian, German,
pointed the leader of the Hungarian Orange Re- Hungarian or Arrow Cross troops—all equally
search Institute, but there he disappoints again, threatening—so they need to adapt their act
because one of his children eats the first Hun- to each new situation instantly. Consequently,
garian orange. He tries to cover up the fiasco by these characters are solely preoccupied with

trying to survive in a world that is ‘full of un- One of the chief Švejkian concerns is to
pleasant surprises’. always have enough to eat and drink. Eager to
The effect of these continuously hectic and take advantage of every occasion when food is
distressing historical experiences is a funda- served or drinks are free, feasting is the most
mental distrust of state institutions, government important, ‘mighty aspiration’ (Bakhtin 1984:
officers and political principles. Švejkian prac- 280) of Švejkism. For instance, in the military
ticality becomes the cultural mark of a general hospital where Švejk is placed with other ‘ma-
social wariness, which is intentionally resistant lingerers’ and where he is denied basic needs,
to ideological messages, political commitment such as food, he receives a visit from a baroness
and a moral stance. Practicality plays an essen- who, having heard about his ‘heroic’ decision to
tial role in the face of existentially threatening join the army voluntarily, offers Švejk cigarettes,
situations such as World War I, World War II food and drink as a way of saying thank you.
or communist totalitarianism, because it urges
the Švejkian hero to satisfy immediate bodily Before Dr. Grunstein could return from
needs and obtain a basic security. Aware of his below, where he had gone to see the
own limited ability to actively participate in and baroness out, Švejk had distributed the
change the larger political scene, the Švejkian chickens. They were bolted by the patients
hero’s interest turns to the technical details of so quickly that Dr. Grunstein found only a
everyday life. Focusing on details also keeps heap of bones gnawed cleanly, as though
him from having to face the larger picture, the the chickens had fallen alive into a nest
devastating historical realities. of vultures and the sun had been beating
In order to endure the brutal conditions down on their gnawed bones for several
of human deprivation, the primary question be- months.
comes how to satisfy one’s basic bodily needs,
securing the necessary food, drink, sleep and The war liqueur and the three bottles of
heat. The Švejkian hero’s world, not surpris- wine had also disappeared. The packets
ingly, revolves around basic bodily functions, of chocolate and the box of biscuits were
such as eating, drinking, pissing and defecat- likewise lost in the patients’ stomachs.
ing. The lower bodily stratum, which Mikhail Someone even drunk up the bottle of
Bakhtin claims stands at the core of the carnival nail-polish which was in the manicure set
and the grotesque, is crucial for the Švejkian and ate the toothpaste which had been
hero’s practicality. The ‘materialistic concept enclosed with the toothbrush. (Hašek
of being, most adequately defined as realistic’ 1974: 73.)
(Bakhtin 1984: 52), in other words, ‘grotesque
realism’ is a perfectly fitting qualifier of Švejkian Food as a prime tool of institutional control
practicality. Eating is not simply a pleasure in here becomes the battleground between the
the carnival, but a way for the body to conquer state and the individual. The combat zone
the world. As Bakhtin put it, ‘No meal can between the monarchy and Švejk takes place
be sad. Sadness and food are incompatible.’ over the body, through the control of basic bod-
(Bakhtin 1984: 283.) Therefore, eating is a joy- ily functions. To keep the hospitalised soldiers
ous triumph over the world, a devouring and away from any decent food is part of the doc-
digesting of it, together with its pains and prob- tor’s strategy to force them back to the bat-
lems. The recurrent images of feasts in medieval tlefield, by making the hospital a worse place
grotesque realism show a triumphant openness than the front itself. Providing a ‘banquet for all
and gay connectedness of the body to the world, the world’ (Bakhtin 1984: 278), in a time and
a connection that disappeared with the Roman-
tic grotesque, but returns again in such prod-
4 The ‘international situation is steadily intensifying’
ucts of the 20th century cultural imagination as was one of Stalin’s favourite slogans, but the phrase became
Švejkism. especially popular in Hungary after the release of Bacsó’s

place of severe food shortage such as World systems. One is identical to the other, as both
War I, brings about a vital victory for Švejk. bring the same tasteless prison food, inequality,
The ‘greedy body’ (Bakhtin 1984: 292), which human deprivation and political oppression to
drinks even the nail polish, carries a general de- the people. Fascism and communism in Eastern
sire for more and ‘“more” abundance’ (Bakhtin Europe share some essential characteristics
1984: 292) and manages to overflow, to defeat from the point of view of everyday life. Hence,
the world or, more specifically here, to dupe and Pelikán takes the only viable path, namely to ig-
overcome such existing repressive institutions nore historical change and concentrate instead
as the army hospital. on ensuring his and his family’s well-being. At
The protagonist of The Witness shows the very end, to the surprise and disappoint-
a very similar interest in eating and drinking. ment of his prison guard, Pelikán fully and
Pelikán maintains a healthy appetite through- cheerfully consumes the specially ordered last
out the film. Although terribly frightened of supper before his execution. He does not allow
Comrade Virág, when given the chance, Pelikán the shadow of death to take away his appetite,
happily accepts and greatly enjoys the ‘small or ruin his mood.
bite’ offered by his interrogator. When Virág For Corporal Molnár, the fascist and
asks him what he usually drinks, his answer is communist armies pose equal threats of be-
simple: ‘anything’. ‘In vino veritas’ is literally ing arrested and possibly executed. He is just
true in Pelikán’s case, as his life is in permanent as aware as Pelikán of the absurd nature of the
danger. Drinking and eating become vital signs world around him. He uses every means avail-
of his being alive; indeed, he enjoys every drink able to stay alive in the precarious disorder
and every bite offered. The roast pig served for characterising Hungary at the end of World
dinner is meant to evoke Pelikán’s sense of guilt War II. Since the pantries of the castle are
(as he was first arrested for illegal pig slaugh- empty, one of the group’s main concerns is
ter), but it does not seem to destroy his appe- how to get hold of more food. In the desperate
tite, as he happily nibbles on the meat. When circumstances, Molnár’s treasure box, which is
Virág proposes the possibility of a future visit of full of bread and sausages, and which he never
friendship to his family, Pelikán’s main concern lets out of his sight, becomes invaluable. Mol-
is that he won’t be able to supply such a fancy nár, in line with his character, refuses to share
meal for his guest as he has received. Also, each the food with the rest of the group. Moreover, he
time he is in prison, Pelikán’s first question is stuffs himself happily in front of them. This up-
‘What’s for lunch/dinner?’ Although the answer sets the other soldiers, who decide to quit acting
is always the same: ‘tarhonya’, a kind of cheap their parts in the masquerade. In order to sat-
and plain pasta dish, he finds this consistency isfy everyone, Molnár proposes to follow up on
almost comforting in a world in which life is the communist deserter Szijjártó’s information
completely unpredictable, except for the perma- that a local hunter and his family have recently
nent food shortage. slaughtered a pig. Before they leave, Molnár
Prison meals thus become the measur- hides his treasure box with great care in a fire-
ing standards of different political systems. place in one of the rooms. Later, he is painfully
When the ex-fascist prisoner complains about disappointed when he finds that a fire was lit in
the food, claiming that during his time (fascist the fireplace and the food has burned to ashes.
Hungary in World War II) they cooked better, On another occasion, Molnár and Szijjártó save
Pelikán shuts him up saying ‘I ate your food, a group of men from being forcefully drafted by
too’. Not only does this declaration mean that the Arrow Cross army and, when the women
the food was no better under the previous politi- give their blessings to them, Molnár impatiently
cal system, but also that Pelikán was a victim replies, ‘We can’t live on blessings. Do you have
of that nomenclature as well. In other words, anything to eat?’
from the point of view of food, or from the point It is not only Molnár or the Hungarians
of view of Pelikán’s life, there is hardly any dif- who are so concerned with food. The German
ference between the communist and the fascist officer whom they come across at the hunter’s

house refuses to leave until he has had his shifting ideological extremes and notoriously
dessert, even though the ‘Russians are in the absurd political experimentations, the Švejkian
pantry already’. He is concerned with nothing hero becomes the fictional imprint of a gradu-
but eating. Later the Germans interrupt the ally developing immunity to political principles.
Hungarian escapees’ dinner in the castle and Such comic scepticism is part of Švejkian prac-
their dogs discover the dinner that Molnár and ticality: the complete subjugation to any absurd
the others have hastily hidden in the cupboard order, never questioning superiors, but also
earlier. The officer, even before touching the never fully committing to any political agenda.
food, asks for ‘baking soda’ to help his diges- Calculated idiotism and deliberate stupidity
tion and advises his aide to call the doctor if he serve an important part in the Švejkian strategy
deems it necessary. The pathologically obses- of surviving the political turmoil.
sive German officer, with his Hungarian accent Švejk’s mischievous behaviour is accom-
(memorably played by the famous Hungarian panied by the physical and verbal display of com-
actor, László Márkus), is a source of great plete idiotic innocence. While Lieutenant Lukáš
comic pleasure, his appetite being an ironic is furious to find that the beloved new pet that
commentary on the endless imperial hunger of Švejk had promised him was in fact stolen from a
Nazi Germany. crazy colonel, ‘the kindly innocent eyes of Švejk
Rabelaisian hedonism is undoubtedly re- continued to glow with gentleness and tender-
lated to the practicality necessary for survival. ness, combined with an expression of complete
Desperate times seem to be frequent in Eastern composure; everything was in order and noth-
Europe and, when food and drink are luxury ing had happened, and if something had hap-
items, Švejk, Pelikán and Corporal Molnár’s pened, it was again quite in order that anything
enthusiastic interests in eating and drinking, at all was happening.’ (Hašek 1974: 209.) Such
besides being a recognition of the most basic expressions of idiocy are very characteristic of
means of survival, signify the celebration of the Švejk. He is more than ready to admit to all ac-
small joys offered by a fundamentally gruesome cusations, especially if that entails being a com-
life. Following Bakhtin’s description of Rabe- plete idiot. When Lieutenant Lukáš in his des-
lais’s medieval carnival, the Švejkian ‘encounter peration asks, ‘Švejk, Jesus Mary, Himmelher-
with the world in the act of eating is joyful, tri- rgott, I’ll have you shot you bastard, you cattle,
umphant; he triumphs over the world, devours it you oaf, you pig. Are you really such a half-wit?’
without being devoured himself’ (Bakhtin 1984: Švejk readily answers, ‘Humbly report, sir, I am.’
281). He ‘eats away’ the surrounding dangers (Hašek 1974: 209.) It is plausible to interpret
and conquers the world with every warm meal. such behaviour as part of the strategy of a politi-
Eating and drinking are positive, empower- cal kamikaze. Švejk’s literal (mis)interpretations
ing forms of participation in the carnival world of official orders, and the idiotic enthusiasm
surrounding Švejk, because through them ‘the with which he executes them wrongly are in fact
limits between man and the world are erased, to veiled forms of civil disobedience, often resulting
man’s advantage’ (Bakhtin 1984: 281). in severe consequences for both himself and his
supervisors. Precisely through such participa-
THE IDIOT’S GUIDE tory adventures, Švejk unmasks the futile bu-
TO POLITICS reaucratic, nationalistic and autocratic nature of
the empire’s political system.
Intense nationalism in a historically multi- Pelikán’s self-declared dumbness, just
ethnic region, the mixing of feudalism with de- like Švejk’s, is part of a pragmatic strategy. The
mocracy, deep rooted despotism and corruption, genuineness of his idiocy is irrelevant as long
devastating wars and dictatorships and, finally, as he plays his part well. His defensive response
the sudden and extreme regime changes from to avoid political interpellation is that he is ‘not
fascism to communism to capitalism left their ideologically educated’, thus declaring himself
marks on the expectations and hopes of the ideologically and otherwise incompetent. His
peoples of Eastern Europe. In these constantly foolish excuse after throwing the general out of

the swimming pool is that he could not recog- when we both fall dead together for His Imperial
nise him because of the shining light. He is also Majesty and the Royal Family.’ (Hašek 1974:
‘too dumb’ to remember the false confession 213.) The ‘Great Empire’ in Švejk’s purpose-
he is supposed to learn by heart, although he fully simplified view is a political aberration
has genuinely good intentions, just like Švejk. sustained by the ‘complete idiot’ (Hašek 1974:
He begs to be excused from testifying, saying, 202) Imperial Family. In his most philosophical
‘Please spare me, I am a complete idiot!’ Pe- observation on the subject, he declares that a
likán’s repeated declaration of being ‘ideologi- ‘monarchy as idiotic as this ought not to exist
cally undereducated’, and therefore unsuitable at all’ (Hašek 1974: 208), to which the person
for important official positions, is coupled with listening to him immediately adds that ‘When I
his lack of political erudition and disinterest get to the front, I’ll hop it pretty quick.’ (Hašek
when it comes to political issues. The second 1974: 208.) Švejk’s enthusiasm about the war
time Pelikán is put into jail, the inmates ask him can at best be interpreted as naïve, and at worst
about what is happening outside. His reaction as a slightly nationalistic aspiration for the Em-
is simple and to the point: ‘Let’s not politicise... pire’s total destruction. He is critical of Hun-
what’s for dinner?’ The political situation out- garians for ‘brawling for the sake of the King of
side is so confusing and disturbing that Pelikán Hungary’5 (Hašek 1974: 232), and of Germans
sees no point in trying to understand or explain for their ignorant and repressive nationalism,
it; instead, he turns his attention to simple demonstrated by stories such as that of a Ger-
matters, such as eating, that will bring security man editor from Čáslav, who ‘refused to speak
in the crazy, volatile world. He maintains his Czech with us, but when he was drafted into
ideological naiveté all the way to the end, and the march company, where there were nothing
refuses to recognise the intricate political situa- but Czechs, he was suddenly able to speak it.’
tions that he is a victim of. (Hašek 1974: 235.) Such vulgar, self-destruc-
Molnár, unlike the other two, is a pur- tive and cynical political commentary permeates
poseful, cunning and sharp strategist, an the novel, signalling a fundamental scepticism
experienced soldier who is well aware of his sur- toward the future of Austria-Hungary and its
roundings. While, in the case of Švejk, readers privileged but decaying royal family.
and critics still wonder whether he is really quite While waiting for his execution in prison,
as stupid as he seems or only acts that way (the Pelikán tries to help the guard do his home-
impossibility of deciding this is one of the main work for his communist seminar, but he either
merits of the novel), Molnár’s shrewdness is doesn’t know the answers or gives naïve ex-
clear from the beginning, when he refuses to planations of the terms he is asked to define.
return to the battlefield after his contingent was For instance, the phrase ‘boycott of the Duma’
destroyed in Budapest. He lies and disobeys he explains as meaning: ‘everyone has to keep
orders without hesitation in order to achieve his quiet’.6 This scene explicitly shows Pelikán’s
goal of staying away from the front. If deemed main problem, namely that he continuously
necessary, he has no problem pretending to be misreads the complicated political sign-system
an idiot as part of a strategy to escape persecu- around him. He gets into trouble because he
tion. For instance, when he is finally caught and doesn’t understand the ideological discourse he
arrested by the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross has to decode and act upon. Yet, precisely this
army, he presents an innocently naïve face, limitation is why Pelikán finally refuses to testify
claiming to be lost and worried to death about against his friend Dániel. He admits to his lack
his contingent. of understanding of the ideological intricacies of
Švejk’s political views are very simple, the trial, but at the same time he also demands
while his comments about the war and Austria- a simple explanation as to why he should be-
Hungary are utterly sarcastic. For instance, come a false witness against his old friend. Ul-
when sent to the front as punishment, he is ‘aw- timately, this gesture of refusal, Pelikán’s apo-
fully happy’ to go, and tells Lieutenant Lukáš litical, uncomplicated but pragmatic common
with great eagerness, ‘It’ll be really marvellous sense, imposes itself on the absurdly intricate

and completely illogical communist world, a An overt acceptance of dishonesty charac-
twisted mixture of repressive ideology, political terises the behavioural pattern in Švejkism. The
authoritarianism and institutional bureaucracy. Švejkian hero shows no concern for questions
In The Corporal and Others, the pes- of morality or ethical behaviour. Moral dilem-
simistic lieutenant who, although not a fascist, mas never bother his conscience; he solves any
identifies with the Hungarian nationalist politi- problem with total disregard for questions of
cal discourse of victimhood, gets into a fierce right or wrong. For instance, as the chaplain is
ideological debate with the communist Szijjártó always short of money, in order to get hold of
about the correct ideological position on the some income, Švejk sells the piano from their
war. Molnár, however, angrily interferes, say- house, which belongs to the landlord. By selling
ing that the whole argument is ‘bullshit!’ His the landlord’s piano and sofa to an illegal dealer,
bitter disappointment over political agendas he is sure to solve the chaplain’s monetary
of aggression and naïve ideological devotions problems. At the same time, Švejk completely
is evident as he continues: ‘Since I was born ignores the immorality of conducting illegal
they have been feeding me with gammon and business with someone else’s property. He
spinach [bullshit]! And look where I ended up?!’ only sees the final goal (to get money) and the
Molnár’s rejection of the nationalist victim po- possibility of getting some extra booze. Later,
sition and his resistance to Szijjártó’s utopian when Lieutenant Lukáš desires a pet dog, Švejk
communist optimism (who, by the way, does obtains one for him by carefully plotting a theft
not speak any Russian, and can only com- with an experienced friend of his. Although the
municate his communist enthusiasm to the mischief is almost instantly discovered, Švejk
Grisa through Corporal Molnár) comes from shows no sign of remorse even though he is
his practicality, which is sceptical towards any promptly transferred to the front as punishment.
hegemonic ideologies. In his experience, both In his world, the end always justifies the means,
fascism and communism lead to totalitarian and ‘good intentions’ outweigh all unethical
regimes, intolerance, imperialistic visions and methods. Švejkian practicality only concen-
aggressive militarism. The justification for his trates on the target, as Švejk’s sole purpose is
cynical attitude towards politics in general is the to survive in the highly stressful and insecure
ongoing war itself, and its obviously disastrous circumstances.
consequences for the population on all sides. If Austria-Hungary’s participation in
World War I marks Švejk’s life with uncertainty
AMORALITY and randomness requiring instant adaptation,
Colonel Molnár’s survival is endangered by
Part of Švejk’s practicality is a distinctive, open- multiple perils, due to Hungary’s catastrophic
minded interest in all things new, devoid of any situation by the end of World War II. His only
emotional compassion or moral responsibility. objective is to stay alive amidst the military
The Švejkian character lacks any social or moral chaos, and no moral code or ethical dilemma
liability. Bakhtin describes the lower bodily stra- will stop him. Molnár is ready to do what it
tum taking form in defecation and reproduction, takes to keep himself and his comrades safe
as characteristic of the carnivalesque. However, from the three different, yet equally hostile,
this element of the grotesque is pushed even armies. After his contingent was destroyed in
further in the Švejkian world, presenting signs Budapest, he escaped with their allocation,
of a ‘downward movement’ (Bakhtin 1984: 400) which he carefully hides and intends to keep and
also in ethical terms. Moral travesty, the con- invest after the war. When they run out of provi-
scious disregard for basic human codes of right sions, Molnár doesn’t hesitate to take food and
and wrong, escapes Bakhtin’s insightful investi-
gation of the medieval carnival. Yet, such behav- 5 Franz Joseph was also the King of Hungary.
iour is so obviously part of Švejkian practicality
6 The Duma is a Russian institution that corresponds to
and the East European grotesque that it needs the lower house in a parliament, but it means ‘chitchat’ in
further clarification. Hungarian.

drink from the home of the hunter, who himself moral immunity by the exceptionally strenuous
is also suffering from shortage. He blatantly lies circumstances, while others, such as Virág, are
about his identity when caught, and master- active promoters and beneficiaries of the com-
fully impersonates different characters, such munist system, which thrives on deception and
as the aristocrat owner of the castle, a fascist corruption. Although Pelikán always tries to do
sympathiser or a communist insurgent, in order the ‘right thing’, even at the very beginning he
to confuse the enemies. He also produces and has no choice but to slaughter a pig illegally in
shares several fake letters of delegation to show order to feed his family. He is a good citizen,
to the authorities. All in all, the colonel’s sense just like Švejk is a ‘good soldier’, but ‘goodness’
of right and wrong is exclusively determined by in this case does not entail strict ethical codes.
his aim of living through the war and staying Pelikán, following Virág’s suggestion, lies to
away from the combat zone. No political belief the general in order to cover for his son who
or moral principle can deter him from looking ate the first Hungarian orange, claiming that
after himself. The question of fighting for the a lemon is in fact the first Hungarian orange.
‘right reasons’ leaves Molnár unmoved, even at Virág himself is frankly sceptical about any
the very end when his comrades join the Soviet endeavour involving fairness and justice. When
forces. After spending three years on the battle- he and Pelikán are looking for General Bástya,
field, there is no ‘good enough reason’ for which who is on a rabbit hunt, Pelikán feels pity for
he would be willing to endanger his life. He is the rabbits (being a victim similar to them). But
suspicious and critical of any ethical or ideologi- Virág cuts him short with a sarcastic warning:
cal principle that tries to justify the ongoing war. ‘Are you moralising again?’
At the very last moment, Molnár changes In the communist era, lying was not con-
his mind and runs after his comrades’ truck on sidered immoral by the general public under
its way back to battle, although he never quite certain circumstances, and stealing from the
reaches them (leaving the film with a playfully state was straightforwardly laudable. The black
open ending). This obviously artificial transfor- market was thriving while state-owned shops
mation of his character does not influence the were empty. Deceit became part of the corporate
viewers’ overall perception of Molnár’s Švejk- strategy in order to report outstanding results
like practicality and heroism, which focuses on even when factory production was declining.
survival. As the Hungarian critic Tibor Hirsch East Europeans spent the last century alien-
very correctly observed, ated from their governing institutions, a situ-
ation that did not change with the arrival of
The corporal, a true survivor—like an em- capitalism. ‘Corruption’, a favourite idiom when
blematic figure from the Kádár era—at the describing the most important problem of the
very end ‘voluntarily’ joins the ad hoc par- region from the point of view of Western invest-
tisan commandos helping the Russians, ment, in fact refers to an institutionalised immo-
but contemporary audiences easily forgive rality that grew out of the generally relativised
this obviously artificial face-lift of the char- ethical behaviour of the people. Imported and
acter: as otherwise it resembles so much unregulated capitalism brought about severe
their own ideal, since the Hungarians in economic hardships in the region, which once
the middle of the 1960s [and not only— again reaffirmed the value of Švejkian practical-
L. T.] turned the simple survivor into a ity, in the sense that people needed to continue
model, and Hungarian cinema popularises thinking about their practical and immediate
such survivors without specially ordered everyday interests, about how to make ends
political campaigns.7 (Hirsch 2007.) meet even if that meant hiring workers illegally,
not paying taxes, forging company documents,
The behaviour of the main characters in the or tipping doctors and officials in order to get
The Witness is also fundamentally amoral, decent assistance.
sometimes even consciously critical of moralis- The hero in Western mythology typically
ing itself. Some, like Pelikán, are pushed into involves ‘someone who is guided by fundamental

principles ‘beyond the pleasure principle’ and He considered it appropriate, in the pres-
not just by the search for pleasure and material ence of Captain Šnábel, Captain Fišer and
gain’ (Žižek 1989: 27), someone with extra- Lieutenant Mahler, not to say that the
ordinary powers and strong moral stand, such chaplain had to pay for his horse’s fodder,
as William Wallace (‘Braveheart’) or Spiderman. but to support his request for a loan by
East European historical realities destroyed the saying that the chaplain had to pay pater-
possibility of and belief in this kind of heroism. nity alimony. He was given money at all
The desperate circumstances instead produced three places. (Hašek 1974: 120.)
a different kind of heroic behaviour: Švejkism,
a fundamentally non-ethical behaviour model Obviously, borrowing money to pay paternity
characterised by bravery that lies in coping with alimony does not shed a very favourable light
tough circumstances, and focuses on staying on the chaplain. Švejk’s ‘good intention’ here
safe and enjoying small pleasures in a world of turns into a satiric comment that exposes the
constant danger and deprivation. On the level of chaplain’s drunk, corrupt, uncaring and com-
cultural production, Švejkism goes further than pletely incompetent character, which can eas-
just legitimising amoral behaviour; it presents ily take one more insult. Indeed, the chaplain
such conduct as being not only acceptable but keeps ‘clutching his head’ (Hašek 1974: 120)
also laudable within the particular constraints of in horror but ultimately does not try to rectify
the East European reality. Ultimately, Švejkism the situation and is happy to take the money.
stresses the idea that ethical and moral values Earlier, when Švejk undergoes a medical exami-
are relative and historically determined. To put it nation before entering the mental hospital, the
in the words of the great absurdist, ‘what is the doctor asks him if he ‘occasionally feel[s] run
robbery of a bank compared to the founding of down, by any chance’ (Hašek 1974: 27). Švejk
a new bank?’ (Bertold Brecht, Threepenny immediately denies this, claiming frankly that
Opera; quoted in Žižek 1989: 30.) he ‘was only once nearly run down by a car on
Charles Square but that was years ago.’ (Hašek
ŠVEJK’S LITERARINESS 1974: 27.) Švejk’s resistance to understanding
AND LITERALISM certain situations, his interpreting language as
transparent, and his choice not to read between
Švejkian existence is purposefully literal. Deny- the lines all serve the same satiric purpose, that
ing symbolic and hidden connotative spheres is of revealing the world around him, which thrives
part of a strategic use of idiocy and works as a precisely on multiple signification, double
gesture of resistance to the double-entendre of meanings and rhetorical deception. Ultimately,
political discourses and overly intricate histori- Švejk’s insistence on literal meaning and simple
cal developments in the region. This aspect of signification serves to unmask the semantic
the Švejkian language John Snyder calls ‘satiric chaos that characterised the decaying Austria-
literalism’ (Snyder 1991: 293), meaning that Hungary.
Švejk interprets language and carries out orders Pelikán also falls short in interpreting and
literally. His enthusiasm is not assisted by any reinterpreting the commands he has to follow
independent judgement or common sense deci- in his jobs. During his very brief career as the
sion-making. Thus, for instance, when the very director of a swimming pool, he fails to recog-
drunk chaplain asks Švejk to punch him, ‘Švejk nise the unwritten, corrupt guest policy. He
immediately obliged him.’ (Hašek 1974: 113.)
At certain times he does act independently, but
7 János Kádár played an important role in the suppres-
only if this leads to the successful outcome of sion of the 1956 revolution in Hungary and became the
his schemes; invariably these actions end up in leader of the country the same year. He stayed in power until
1988, when the democratisation and liberalisation of the
disaster. For instance, when the chaplain asks country became inevitable. The Kádár era was characterised
to borrow some money, Švejk decides to do a by heavy Soviet influence (and military presence), but also
by political and economic compromises, relatively high
thorough job. He invents a story that proves to living standards and loose governing. Kádár’s principle was
be very effective. consolidation, and to avoid upsetting any parties.

lets the common people in because they have signified. By insisting on verbatim interpreta-
bought tickets, while commanding General tions and a transparency between language and
Bástya, who is swimming by himself, to leave the world, the Švejkian hero shows how political
the pool, since he does not have a ticket. This systems generate deception and uncertainty
straightforward application of the swimming through opaque and equivocal language.
pool rules to an obviously tricky situation lands The fictional element in The Corporal and
him back in prison. His second position, the Others manifests itself somewhat differently.
director of the amusement park, does not bring Instead of hearing stories told by different char-
any more luck. In a truly socialist spirit, Pelikán acters, the viewer mostly witnesses these stories
proposes to turn the imperialist sounding ‘Eng- as staged theatrical acts. The oral fables are
lish park’ into an ‘amusement park’, and the replaced by drama. Molnár, besides his merci-
simple ‘ghost train-ride’ into a ride of the ‘true less logical egoism, capitalises on the capability
soul of socialism’.8 His ideas receive a warm of quickly responding to unexpected situations.
welcome in bureaucratic circles. However, when He and his companions wear women’s clothing,
the general takes the first ceremonial train ride wear masks, stage little dramatic acts, and pro-
in the new cave, he is horrified to see Marx, duce deceiving stories for the different (military)
Lenin and his own picture accompanied by typi- audiences. They become a theatre company,
cal communist catch-phrases and visual icons using the castle as a changing room.
emerging scarily from the dark. It turns out that The characters perform different dramas,
Pelikán has left everything intact, only exchang- with the sole purpose of deceiving their multiple
ing the ‘symbols of darkness’, such as skeletons enemies. Two soldiers pretend to be hunters
and monsters, for the symbols of communist when Molnár finds them first; later the group
ideology (images of Marx and Lenin, the ham- sets up a fictional headquarters when Szijjártó
mer and sickle, and a portrait of General Bástya arrives. The lieutenant plays the part of a noble-
himself as the climatic end to the ride). This man to distract the Germans, but before, when
plain conversion of the original ‘ghost train’ into they think that the Russians are coming, they
the ‘socialist soul train’ costs him the job and also perform a still-life act dressed as peas-
results in yet another imprisonment. ants, with the crippled Soviet soldier sitting in
Pelikán’s failure to recognise the duplicity the middle. They act as if they are fighting the
of standards, the double meaning of words, and Russians when they accidentally meet the Ger-
his inability to interpret his position within the man army. Later, when facing the Arrow Cross
multi-layered world of communist signification officer, Molnár pretends to be a lost courier.
are the main causes of his misfortune. His naïve These performances prove to be lifesavers for
and literal execution of different directives is the corporal and the rest. They hide their true
rooted in a simple and transparent understand- feelings (fed up with the war) behind these fic-
ing of communist ideology, or more precisely, tional masks, in order to avoid being drawn back
in the lack thereof. However, such persistent to the reality of the hopeless military crisis in
literalism ultimately reveals the duplicities and Hungary at the end of World War II. The fiction-
the deceptions that dominate communist reality. al acts that the Corporal invents in the chaotic,
While Švejk unmasks the monarchic absolut- unpredictable circumstances work as a shelter,
ism’s irrationality by pushing it to the extreme, because all participants in the ‘game’ experi-
Pelikán’s strategy is that of contrasting his own ence the reality of the war as fiction, a world
simple(minded) reasoning with the totalitarian devoid of reason and order, where anyone can be
irrationality surrounding him. Through their a potential ally or enemy, a world wide open to
‘satiric literalism’, both characters disclose the the imagination.
absurd incongruity between language and what The effect of satiric literalism is that ‘We
it is supposed to describe, material reality. By cannot read behind or underneath Švejk’s talk,
following orders and carrying out tasks literally, figuring intentions and hypothesizing motives
the Švejkian character ultimately re-establishes according to some subtext. [---] As readers we
the long lost connection between signifier and must, instead, emulate Švejk the literal speaker

by taking his words literally. Then we can see the small powerless successor states struggled
what these words do—they satirize.’ (Snyder to build national institutions, strong, independ-
1991: 294.) With his non-metaphorical lan- ent economies and political unity in the vacuum
guage, Švejkism insists on a minimal, yet stable created by the war. The unsuccessful project led
denotation in a world that is characterised by a to extreme nationalist fundamentalism, which
surplus of connotative meanings, a world that pushed most of these countries into a fascist
thrives on obscure symbolism. The Švejkian alliance with, or into being a helpless prey of,
hero gets into trouble because he refuses to de- Germany. World War II brought the most severe
code the multiple coded message systems, com- devastation to the region, ending in a fifty-year
plex metaphors or double-talk. His insistence artificial political experiment of top-down, man-
on the transparency of language works as a criti- datory socialism. After the fall of communism,
cism of the over-abundance and ambiguity of the arrival of brutal free market capitalism only
discourse in the chaotic and confusing world of reconfirmed that the ‘normal state of things’
the decaying Austro-Hungarian Empire, as well in Eastern Europe was still deviation and idi-
as the fascist, and later communist, Hungary. osyncrasy. Under these circumstances, a special
The thriving of fictionality, placed in highly state of mind, an inclination towards scepti-
intense historical contexts, seamlessly folds into cism, distrust and practicality developed in
the post-world war communist reality, reflecting the population, as a defensive response to the
back on its own surreal, absurd nature, in which politico-economic turmoil. I see Švejkism as an
fiction and material reality become insepara- imaginary articulation of this very real collective
ble. Stories are important in the Švejkian world response to the relentlessness of absurdity.
because they affect and validate the narrative Švejkian practicality resonated well with
reality, but at the same time they also unmask viewers in the political chaos of the post-com-
the fundamentally fantastic quality of the his- munist era. The vacuum created in the political
torical reality. The ‘freedom of fantasy’ (Bakhtin arena after the fall of the one-party system was
1984: 49), which is also a characteristic of the filled by a carnivalesque amalgam of innumer-
grotesque, liberates the Švejkian hero from be- able, small, ‘personal parties’. As the popular
ing bound by morality, rationality and logic, as joke went, everyone seemed to have a party of
the world around him also seems to be driven by their own in the early 1990s in Eastern Europe.
a total ‘freedom of fantasy’. The interweaving of At the same time, most of those in the old com-
fiction and reality, of discourse and materiality in munist bureaucratic nomenklatura managed
the 20th century history of Eastern Europe can- to benefit from this chaos by obtaining powerful
not be overestimated. positions in the new parliamentary politics and
by jumping at the fresh opportunities offered
ŠVEJKISM—AN ENDURING by the free market economy. The old com-
STRATEGY OF SURVIVAL munist elite successfully turned itself into the
privileged class of nouveau riche and political/
East European history in the 19th and 20th governmental executives of the present. The
centuries was repeatedly ‘derailed’ (Berend well-known, impressive resurrection of commu-
2003) by decaying imperialism, two world nist successor parties in the region also proves
wars, economic depression, totalitarian com- the often not so subtle continuities between the
munism and wild capitalism. The decades of pre- and post-1989 political systems.9 Witness-
ongoing political, social and economic crises ing the uncanny reincarnation of their old-new
finally solidified into a permanent existential officials and representatives, being well aware
condition, where instability, irrationality and
the absurd became the ‘nature of things’ for the
8 The Hungarian term for ‘ghost train’ is szellemvasút,
general population. East European society has which can also be translated as ‘soul train’, because szellem
constantly found itself in reconstruction, transi- means ‘soul’.
tion or a ‘state of exception’. As World War I 9 For a comprehensive discussion on the topic see
brought about the demise of Austria-Hungary, Bozóki, Ishiyama 2002.

of the ongoing corruption and non-democratic reduced to a one-world condition, where it is
legislative methods that supported it, the once impossible to separate the improved, better,
euphoric population again adopted a Švejkian normal world from its travesty and deviance.
sceptical and critical attitude towards the dis- Bakhtin’s counter-hegemonic, reinvigorating
heartening realities of the ongoing political carnival thus freezes into a macabre-grotesque
and economic developments. When Molnár prison of permanently absurd, upside-down
refuses any ideological commitment, or Pelikán structures that characterise the East European
finds communist politics just as rotten as fas- carnival.
cist politics, or when Švejk ironically connects The 20th century history of the region was
his enemas with the high cause of the empire, also carnivalesque in that it presented the ‘world
they speak to the experience of a long historical inside out’ (Bakhtin 1984: 11), its most perma-
period in Eastern Europe that continues today. nent attribute being the instability of political
Their practical, sceptical and critical position, powers, bureaucratic chaos and disrupted he-
often masked by strategic idiocy, corresponds gemonic relations; in other words, ‘a continual
to the general atmosphere of the people who, shifting from top to bottom, from front to rear’
after 1989, still found themselves in the same (Bakhtin 1984: 11). These conditions, however,
chaotic, corrupt and unending political and differently from Bakhtin’s temporary, revitalis-
economic carnival as their ancestors did in the ing carnival, became the norm. The continuous
1920s, 1940s and 1960s. historical carnival in Eastern Europe solidified
Bakhtin’s description of the Rabelaisian into everyday reality, turning from an alternative
carnival and the incongruous historical develop- world into the official world itself. The reason for
ments in Eastern Europe, although different in this is to be found in the primary condition of
many ways, share some fundamental charac- the carnival, which links it to ‘moments of crisis,
teristics. Bakhtin understands carnival as part of breaking points in the cycle of nature or in
of a ‘two-world condition’ in which temporarily the life of society and man’ (Bakhtin 1984: 9).
hierarchical relationships and prohibitions are A permanent repetition of historical disasters
suspended, and the serious, official forms of ide- and socio-economic crises replaced the cyclical
ology give way to subversive, liberating laughter momentary structure that Bakhtin describes.
and transgression. Thus, for Bakhtin, carnival is Therefore, in Eastern Europe Bakhtin’s positive
important for reinvigorating and refreshing so- understanding of the carnival was reinterpreted
cial conditions, but ultimately it confirms the ex- in a much gloomier manner. Instead of a vitalis-
isting order by offering a safe and temporary way ing energy, the carnival became an exhausting
of releasing social tension. East European coun- permanent condition, in which the perpetual
tries in the last two centuries have also aspired random changes in political and social hierar-
to a ‘two-world condition’—hoping to reach chies, lawlessness, military chaos and bureau-
some kind of ‘normalcy’ by vanquishing the cratic authoritarianism folded into a fundamen-
anomalous. However, an important element of tal existential instability.
Bakhtin’s concept of the revitalising, ‘gay carni- As Renate Lachmann observes about
val’ is missing from the region’s history, as well Bakhtin’s work: ‘when [carnival] gains its free
as from its Švejkian distillation in the popular time and space in the annual cycle, it unfolds
imaginary. The essentially utopian presumption not as destructive, but as a regenerative force’
that the carnival means a ‘moving toward a bet- (Lachmann 1987: 13). However, the upside-
ter future that changes and renews everything down world of Eastern Europe is devoid of
in its path’ (Bakhtin 1984: 302) is not part of the Bakhtinian carnival’s reinvigorating and
the definition of East European history. The mo- temporary character; there is no return to any
ment of carnival, instead of regenerating the so- condition of normality, much less to a better,
cial sphere, then passing and giving way to new, purified life. In other words, the utopian state of
better social formations, continues to persist the carnivalesque gives way to an absurd con-
in East European reality. The two-world condi- stancy, where the lower bodily stratum contin-
tion was never fully achieved; instead, it became ues to dominate, amorality is essential and the

discursive superstructure has been definitively strategy of participation and survival. ‘We mud-
detached from the material base. Such an ex- dle along as we can’, says Švejk at some point
perience of reality in permanent disarray gave (Hašek 1974: 131), and the plural ‘we’ in the
birth to Švejkian practicality, the only survival assertion is perfectly justified because his char-
strategy in the chaos of political and ideological acter is not a lonely, romantic individual, not
experimentation in East European history. Fur- ‘the “existential” and “alienated” hero’ (Stern
thermore, since the ‘state of exception’ slowly 1992: 108), but a communal-folk figure, the
froze into a permanent condition, including the fictional representation of the universal critical
arrival of the free market, capitalist democracy, interpretative strategy of East European com-
Švejk’s practicality and critical irony retained munities trapped in an ongoing historical car-
their relevance. nival. If special times require special conduct,
Bakhtin’s claim of the crucial role of Švejkian practicality is a collective condition
the ‘grotesque historical world’ in ‘becoming of the mind, ready to conform to all ‘states of
and renewal’ (Bakhtin 1984: 435), in other exception’.
words, that comedy is the last, overripe form
of historical time and a symptom of unavoid- CONCLUSIONS
able change, resonates ironically with Marx’s
quote at the very end of The Witness, ‘Why If, as Bakhtin argues, the regenerating power
such a march of history? This is necessary in of the medieval grotesque disappeared in ro-
order that mankind can say a gay farewell to manticism with Nietzsche’s tragic laughter, it
its past.’ I referred to irony, because, it seems returned again in 20th century grotesque real-
that East European history has been caught ism (Bakhtin 1984: 46). Švejk’s participatory
in this overripe moment of grotesque laughter existence discloses an intimate connection to
for over a century now. The carnival continues, the absurdity of living, while at the same time it
and so does Švejk’s popularity, and there is no finds joy in the anarchic carnival and provokes
‘gay farewell to the past’. As long as clowns sympathetic communal laughter. Švejkian
are kings and the king is a ridiculous clown, mockery brings an essential positive element
and violating essential ethical codes continues to the otherwise ghastly carnivalesque spirit
to be fashionable, as long as lies and truth are in Eastern Europe. Such bodily, materialist
inseparable, the Švejkian character, his adven- participation in history is productive because
tures and his survival will continue to resonate it ‘destroy[s] and suspend[s] all alienation; it
in the popular imagination, offering a successful draw[s] the world closer to man, to his body,
strategy of critical, but also gay, participation in permit[s] him to touch and test every object,
the East European ‘grotesque historical world’. examine it from all sides, enter into it, turn it
However, comedy and laughter became crucial inside out, compare it to every phenomenon,
indications of survival in the East European however exalted and holy, analyze, weigh,
permanent carnival because ‘the stuff of comedy measure and try it on.’ (Bakhtin 1984: 381.)
is precisely this repetitive, resourceful popping- Švejkism, in this sense, is a true manifestation
up of life—whatever the catastrophe, no matter of the ‘comic aspect of survivalism’; the hearty
how dark the predicament, we can be sure in laughter he provokes is a sign of the ‘triumph of
advance that the little fellow will find a way out’ life over the constraints of symbolic prohibitions
(Žižek 2001: 85). and regulations’ (Žižek 2001: 83).
The Švejkian world can be interpreted as The Švejkian hero’s strategic dumbness
an imaginary reconstruction of this permanent ultimately comments on the absurdly complex
carnivalesque. But Švejkism itself involves an and incomprehensible political games and po-
active participation in the carnival, a critical litical experimentations that have continued
involvement with the clear goal of getting by. to characterise the region since the end of the
Švejkian practicality, contrary to what has been
argued,10 is ‘far removed from cynical nihilism’
(Bakhtin 1984: 378)—instead it is a productive 10 See especially Snyder 1991 and Steiner 2000.

19th century. His figure is as persistent in the FILMS
cultural production of Eastern Europe as is the The Corporal and Others (A tizedes
absurdity of his world, when history, like ‘a tank meg a többiek), dir. Márton Keleti.
that comes through the wall’ (Petković 2006: Hungary, 1965
380), cannot be ignored any more, because it The Witness (A tanú), dir. Péter Bacsó.
shatters people’s lives. They often find them- Hungary, 1968
selves in situations ‘in which they were heroes
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