In his 1963 study, “Kafka and Hašek; or the Grotesque Fictional Worlds,” the Czech philosopher, Karel Kosík, discussed the grotesque fictional worlds of Franz Kafka and his contemporary Jaroslav Hašek, exposing the parallels between their unfinished novels: Kafka’s The Trial (1925) and Hašek’s The Fortunes of the Good Soldier Švejk during the World War, the first Czech novel to receive an international acclaim (1923). Although Hašek’s book opens with the assassination of Ferdinand d’Este, but ends before the protagonist faces the trenches, it is hardly a novel about the war. It complements Kafka’s fictional world of bureaucratic horrors by mocking the incompetence of army and church officials as well as bureaucrats in several institutions such as jails, hospitals, and psychiatric wards. Similarly, Josef K., the hero of Kafka’s posthumously published novel (1925), begins with two men who intrusively enter Josef K.’s room and eat his breakfast. Accused of an unnamed and supposedly serious crime, Josef K. is first deprived of his breakfast and, following a course of action reminiscent of stations in an expressionist drama, K. subsequently loses his odd legal battle and is eventually executed by the two men of his escort. Within a year of his thirtieth birthday, he dies ‘[l]ike a dog’ (Kafka 1925, p. 194). By contrast, Josef Švejk’s age is unknown as are any biographical details. Yet, the horrors of the war enter the text mostly as a monstrous back-drop for Švejk who ‘had left military service […], after being certified by an army medical board as an imbecile, and now lived by selling dogs – ugly, mongrel monstrosities whose pedigrees he forged’ (Hašek 1973, p. 3). After the war declaration, however, he became ‘a moving example of loyalty […] a man in an army cap […] waving his crutches […], shout[ing] out to the streets of Prague: “To Belgrade, to Belgrade!”‘ (Hašek 1973, p. 58).

Hunger ‘Artists’

In Hašek’s novel, hunger and starvation become symbolic of the oppressive and increasingly corrupt political regime. Švejk’s medical condition, as the ailments of the others on his ward, is treated with a strict diet, his ‘stomach pumped out twice a day with a litre of warm water’ (p. 62). In spite or because of their permanent hunger, the ‘group of emaciated and starved malingerers’ listens to ‘a course for gourmets,’ but is interrupted by the Baroness’ visit who ‘stroked Švejk on his unshaven cheeks and went on: “I reat eferyzink in ze newspapers, I brink you yum yum, zomzink to bite, to shmoke, to zuck. Tscheh soldier, goot soldier”‘ (p. 71). Following her exit, the room turned for a few minutes into the land of plenty:

The chickens […] were bolted by the patients so quickly that Dr Grűnstein found only a heap of bones gnawed cleanly, as though the chickens had fallen alive into a nest of vultures and the sun had been beating down on their gnawed bones for several months. (Hašek 1973, p. 73)

As expected, the doctor ordered to pump out their stomachs immediately. The rest is sent to fight. However, neither the cause of the war, nor the war itself has any particular significance for them since as Milan Kundera (1986) observes:

In Homer and in Tolstoy, war had a perfectly comprehensible meaning; people fought for Helen or for Russia. Schweik (sic!) and his companions go to the front without knowing why and, what is even more shocking, without caring to know. (p. 9)

This is especially true of the former miller Baloun, who enters the second of the four volumes of the novel as the newly selected batman of Švejk’s former superior, Lieutenant Lukáš. Reminiscent of Rabelais’ Gargantua, Baloun is characterized by his constant gluttony. Sadly, Baloun’s hunger cannot be satisfied and is fed only in his imagination where pictures:

the finest treat you can have: […] a nicely roasted piece of pork, taken of the brine and served with cabbage and potato dumplings and sprinkled with cracklings […]. And then a lot of beer afterwards. And the war’s taken all that away from us. (p. 416-7)

The use of the paratactic conjunction ‘and’ is reminiscent of the biblical language, alluding to the fact that for Baloun talking about food has almost a religious connotation. Not surprisingly, the war means a special torture for a man with his enormous appetite, especially as Lieutenant Lukáš punishes Baloun by ordering him to be tied in front of the others as he watches watch his portion being given away. Unlike Baloun’s public humiliation, Kafka’s hunger artist exhibits his hunger as art.

Baloun, however, demonstrates merely one facet of hunger during the war. The patriotic postcards, distributed to the soldiers instead of their expected rations are among the many ways the narrator applies irony to indicate the various ideological means used to conceal the lack of sustenance for the soldiers and the diverse attempts to substitute food with propaganda (Hašek 1973, p. 50). Incidentally, as Karl Kraus’ closet drama, The Last Days of Mankind (1922), shows, hunger also appears as an important feature in the ‘hinterland’, where the restaurant guests face meatless days. Moreover, dishes they used to order are merely figments of their imagination, inscribed in their memories, as much as Baloun’s slaughtered pig.


The treatment used for purging the patients of their short lived culinary delights belongs to the many instances in the novel in which the digestive processes and their products are presented most graphically. In the third volume of the book, for instance, Švejk is approached by a general, who inquires: ‘Haf you already been to the latrines?’ Švejk’s reaction includes the question: ‘[… ] what would we do in those latrines? There would be nothing to squeeze out of us. According to our march schedule we ought to have got supper at several stations, but instead we got nothing at all’ (p. 536). The narrator’s comment that ‘Austria’s victory crawled out of her latrines’ (p. 538) only reinforces the image of Austro-Hungary as a world upside-down, ‘as a Dreckkatafalk, one large latrine, a fetid land of enteroclysms, shit-filled trousers and suppositories – in short, a Cacania-Arsinia. Clearly for Hašek war is all physical, all bodily function and filth’ (Ripellino 1994, p. 245). In this context, the fictional world of Švejk evokes the name Kakanien Robert Musil coined out of the German abbreviation K und K (kaiserlich und königlich or ‘Imperial and Royal’), the designation of the Dual Monarchy Austria-Hungary.

According to Roman Jakobson, Hašek introduced ‘an internationally novel style of humor’ (Jakobson 1982, p. 896), while Milan Kundera (1986) calls Hašek’s work ‘perhaps the last great popular novel’ (p. 9). In fact, elements of popular culture are intertwined with a variety of discourses and devices typical of Dada, and surrealist parody. As Susan Suleiman (1990) suggests:

predilection for punning and other verbal games, as well as for the humorous, often scatological or otherwise ‘scandalous’ rewriting of traditional texts or images … the predilection for collage and collage-like techniques of juxtaposing heterogeneous elements, which Peter Bürger considers the hallmark of the ‘avant-gardist work.’ (p. 146)

Akin to a Dadaist work of art, the entire book is ‘in its basic structure … a complex and cunning collage‘ (Frynta 1965, p. 87). Hence, it will come as no surprise that the novel’s reception was both enthusiastic and indignant. Similar reactions followed its German translation, initiated by Kafka’s friend Max Brod, who not only ‘discovered’ Hašek, but also presented his own dramatization of the book. Although his name appeared on the performance bill of the staged version directed by Erwin Piscator, it was the collaboration of Piscator, Bertolt Brecht, the painter George Grosz and others that turned the performance of Good Soldier Schweik in Berlin, in 1928 into one of the most important modern stage productions.

Piscator’s Schweik ‘broke box office records’ (Innes 1977, p. 5) and showed that there are possibilities of representing the First World War on the stage, which Karl Kraus considered impossible ‘because the nature of the catastrophe invalidated normal concepts.’ The success of the play prompted both Piscator and Brecht to pursue plans for a film version, which never materialized. In 1943, Brecht, however, transposed several parts of Hašek’s work into a new play,Schweyk in the Second World War, which was neither performed, nor published during his lifetime. Reviewing the world premiere, which Andrzej Wirth directed in Warsaw in 1957, the Polish theatre scholar Jan Kott considers the text as an artistic error.

This dramatic text relies heavily on the original with regard to the basic episodes. Yet Brecht kept only three characters from the novel: the protagonist, the secret agent Brettschneider, and the always hungry Baloun. Confronted with the German soldiers, the police and the Gestapo, these characters show some human, patriotic features but are not depicted as caricatures, or part of a grotesque universe. Baloun is simply a starving man, willing to join the Germans for the sake of meat on his plate; Brettschneider is no longer a simple snitch, eventually eaten by the dogs, but a man defending the attractive innkeeper. Finally, Švejk does not tell stories merely to protect himself, but he frequently fabulates in order to also shield his friends. Although his tales often allude to the chaining techniques introduced by Hašek, the more confusing device of embedded stories used mostly in front of the superiors is rare (see Ambros 2004). Nonetheless, he is often told to shut up, thus foregrounding the connotation of his name with the German verb schweigen to keep quiet, to stop talking.

Similarly, passages from the original are presented in a new context. For instance, the stealing of a dog replaces the satire on the army hierarchy and turns into a rather chilling attempt to reconcile two tasks that Švejk so desperately tries to perform: to feed his friend Baloun and to save his own neck by supplying the Gestapo officer with the dog of pure breed. Eventually, he kills the dog to have the meat for Baloun and is sent to Stalingrad. The scenes with Švejk and his friends are juxtaposed with dialogues in ‘the higher spheres’ in which Hitler, Himmler, and Göring appear like characters in cabaret sketches. They replace the numerous articles, letters, songs, and other actual and fictional material that Hašek used in order to conjure up facets of the actual world. By contrast, Brecht, alongside Chaplin and Ernst Lubitsch, created comedy mostly informed by the aesthetic conventions of the pre- war cabaret satirical sketches based on the experience of the previous war. Mocking Hitler belonged to the practice of the popular culture that they knew.

Long Journeys

Clearly, the unimaginable sufferings of those who did not commit any crime and were condemned to death in yet another war required new means of expression. While The Fortunes of the Good Soldier Švejk during the World War takes a unique position among the texts dealing with the World War as a literary collage unified by the protagonist that mocks the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, its army and other institutions, the majority of works created immediately after WWII often used conventional devices of either fiction, or documents. Among the exceptions are two works, which were criticized and removed from circulation for decades because of their topic and its unconventional treatment. The novel Life with a Star (1949) by Jiří Weil 1 and the first film of the theatre director Alfréd Radok’s Distant Journey (1948) are both dealing with the fate of the Jews under the Nazis, 2 while avoiding what Saul Friedlander (1984) calls ‘the neutralization of “extreme situations,” particularly death, by turning them into some sentimental idyll’ (p. 25; 53). These two works bring together diverse points of view. Although virtually unknown to a wider audience, they are considered masterpieces by the connoisseurs like Philip Roth, Arthur Miller, Andre Bazin, and Ian Avisar. Both works avoid a linear narrative, conjure up the context in which the Jews were persecuted, and offer early testimonies of life and death of civilians in extremis.

The Onion, the Cat and the Feast

The hero of Life with a Star, a small Jewish official Josef Roubíček (his name is a diminutive which denotes a peg, or a gag and at the same time a stock character of Czech Jewish jokes), serves as a guide through Prague during the war who shows the demeanour of her Jewish and non-Jewish inhabitants. His monologues with his former lover, which open and close the novel, provide glimpses into the shared past, while his addresses to Death, and the stray cat named Thomas expose the present state of mind of the narrator. Initially, although Roubíček succumbs to the life with a star imposed by those who are after his possessions and his life, he rebels by turning his house into an unlivable hovel, to prevent the Nazis from finding any loot there. Later encouraged by Materna, a Czech worker, he decides to resist the seemingly inevitable and goes into hiding.

In the time when ‘the value of things had changed’ and ‘a small Persian rug’ was traded ‘for two strings of garlic’ (Weil, 1949, p. 130), food constituted an important part of the narrative. Before Roubíček supposedly leaves with a transport, he is given an onion. However, since his name is not on the list, he decides to pass the onion to his namesake, a man asked by his ex-wife and his daughter to get out of their lives. Obeying their wishes, he is about to commit suicide and rejects Roubíček’s offering, who in turn decides to eat it ‘even if Tomas [the cat] probably would not want to eat it’ (p. 161). For a while Tomas, the stray cat, becomes his sole companion, a companion with whom he shares his time, food and the dilapidated place, even though Jews are no longer allowed to have pets. Moreover, as Roubíček admits, Tomas ‘certainly breaks laws and regulations. And he gets hold of mouse meat and the meat of songbirds even though he’s not eligible for meat rations’ (p. 144). Eventually, Tomas shares the fortune of the dog in Brecht’s play. He is shot by a man ‘who sometimes wears a uniform. Who else could shoot nowadays except them?’ (p. 212). As the hero concludes: ‘They had guns and the right to shoot at anything that moved and lived’ (p. 213). Roubíček is told that a neighbour came ‘so he could skin him and bake him with garlic’ (p. 211). This transformation of his mate into food drives Roubíček to despair, and he loses interest in his life for a while. Yet, as he slowly recovers, he realizes that ‘they couldn’t get me now, when my life no longer had any meaning for me’ (p. 231).

Shortly after he decides to live, he hears the story at the cemetery where he is sent to work. While working, the gravediggers describe a strange last supper, ‘[…] a magnificent meal’: ‘[…] the whole family was sitting at the table. […] they were rigid as statues. And what was most terrible, all those people sitting at the table were laughing’ (p. 233). As Roubíček has done with his belongings, the dead family plays a trick on ‘them’ as well. They are laughing as they place their transport numbers in front of them, escaping the transport in their own way. Their transformation into grotesque statues lays bare the attempts of the Nazis to treat people as objects, their reification of human beings and their hunger for commodification.

The Wedding and the Potato

Radok thanked Weil for his novel, which he called a ‘big gravestone for the small dead’ (Cieslar, 1991, p. 60). The topic of the grave was very important for Radok, who considered those ‘who visit cemeteries and graveyards as lucky as those who rest there’ (Cieslar, 1991, p. 60). In his first film, Radok combined feature film with documentary and quasi documentary footage of historical events (passages from Leni Riefenstahl’s films among them), which reveal the impact of the Nuremberg laws on various spheres of life in and outside Bohemia. The use of two different types of film conventions (feature and documentary) anticipate Radok’s widely acclaimed experiment developed a decade later called The Magic Lantern. 3 Reminiscent of the discourse of the narrator in Hašek’s novel, the voiceover of a commentator creates often an ironic distance, contradicting the propaganda message of the images.

The plot focuses on the fortunes of the ophthalmologist Hana and her family from the beginning of the German protectorate to the end of the war in 1945. Refusing to emigrate, Hana agrees to marry her non-Jewish colleague Tonik. The wedding banquet exposes the ambiguity of the occasion, as both families show their reservations about this mixed marriage. Nonetheless, each of the guests attempts to keep the appearances. The setting of the table corresponds with the festive occasion, yet the meal itself is rather meagre and the real celebration postponed for ‘after the war.’ One of the guests, however, leaves the feast, returns to his apartment in the same building, lights a cigarette, his backpack prepared for the transport. The smoking cigarette in an ashtray, an open window, and sounds imply his suicide, which calls a possible continuation of the celebration in question. The wedding scene also exemplifies the ways in which Radok fragments the time continuum, using mirrors and windows. Destroying the linearity of the story, he shows a clash between subjective and objective time similar to that described most eloquently by Kafka:

The clocks do not agree, the internal one runs in a devilish or demonic or in any case inhuman pace, the outer one limps along at its usual speed. What else can happen but that the worlds split apart, and they do split apart, or at least clash in a fearful manner. (Kafka Diary, entry from January 16, 1922)

Another important element is used prior to the festivity when Tonik’s brother sees the coats with Jewish stars hanging in the wardrobe. After her parents and brother left for Terezin, Hana’s coat is the only one that remains. Yet Hana herself enters the ghetto as well. Confronted with her point of view, the viewer observes the distribution of food, which is presented as a fight for survival. Hana’s portion gets spilled and one of her potatoes rolls close to one of the inmates, who quickly kicks the piece away from sight and picks it up as fast as she can so that no one should notice. This brief episode shows Radok’s ability to condense a situation; to reveal through its grotesque quality the historical condition. Thus, the potato signifies the hunger of the girl who ‘found it,’ Hana’s lack of knowledge of the place, and the despondency of the conditions she is about to experience. In fact, from the very beginning of the film, Radok’s images evoke one of the repeated models of apocalyptic literature, Dante’s Inferno. The people entering and caskets leaving the ghetto signify the gate as the point at which hope will be abandoned (Avisar 1988, p. 86). The protagonists in lieu of many others perform the act of witnessing that ‘is related to the need to lament, to mourn, and to restore dignity to the victims and to the survivors’ (Landy 1997, p. 250).

The Jewish experience, however, was absent in the public discourse after the war, moreover Weil and Radok were attacked and considered, like Kafka, as too bourgeois and individualist. Radok hints at this development when he shows in the final scene as he takes Hana and Toník to the cemetery where the rows of crosses at the cemetery point to their grief, but also to their individual suffering. The crosses, however, are sublimated with the shot of the Star of David implying the manipulation of memory in the post war history, which suppressed the reference to Terezin as a ghetto and reduced it to the place, where the Czech resistance fighters were prisoned and tortured. Eventually, the ordinary meaning of the onion and the potato as simple food was restored as was the place of cats and dogs as pets, their literary counterparts, however, continue to feed our imagination, expanding our understanding of war and food in literature.


(1.) Weil was one of the very few Czech Jews who survived the war in hiding. Since he was excluded from the Union of Czechoslovak Writers following the publication ‘of the bad and damaging book,’ as the critic Ivan Skála judged Life with a Star (Weil, 1999, p. 493 ), the only organization to employ him was the Jewish museum in Prague. Although nowhere credited for it, Weil initiated the remarkable wall in Pinkas synagogue listing each of the 77 297 victims to whom he also devoted his Lament for 77 297. True to the genre, the text is reminiscent of antic chorus, which intertwines biblical references, fragments of life stories and glimpses of more general statements, rules and regulations.

(2.) Because of its religious connotation with sacrifice (cf. ‘A sacrifice wholly consumed by fire,’ in The New Illustrated Webster Dictionary of the English Language [1992, p. 461]), I will avoid the term Holocaust ‘which simultaneously covers the Jewish genocide, the TV, movie, and its personalized tragedy, and the emotional and political reactions it provoked,’ as Jean Paul Bier (1980) argues in “The Holocaust and West Germany: Strategies od Oblivion 1947-1979” (p. 29). Also see Annette Insdorf, Indelible Shadows. Film and Holocaust (Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 2003).

(3.) First performed at the 1958 World exhibition in Brussels, the film projected on different screens synchronized with live action on stage. Occasionally, the actors performed parts simultaneously with the events on screen or the screen action multiplied the performers on stage. This successful technique foreshadows contemporary experiments in theatre.


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