September 16, 2005 | THIS ALTOGETHER THUNDER

Josef Lada

I’ve been slogging through The Good Soldier Švejk, a well-known World War I novel by Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek. This is a book that I’ve been wanting to read for years; I was supposed to read it for a class in college but never got around to it. I’m almost done now and the whole thing has been rather underwhelming. In fact, I might have just given up were it not for the amazing illustrations by Josef Lada:

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Švejk and some officers / Josef Lada

My problem with the book might just come from the allegedly poor translation (I am reading the 1930 translation by Paul Selver), but the more I read, the more I find Švejk, the protaganist, to be annoying, and also to be emblematic of a lot of what I disliked about life in Central Eastern Europe. The book makes a lot of sense and it is interesting in historical context, but, man, it is maddening. No one takes responsibility for anything! No one takes initiative! Everyone is nice, but nobody does anything! Ugh. It is a saga of Eastern European passive aggression, and it is enough to drive you insane. Still, it’s interesting to compare Hašek to other C. E. European authors like Kafka and Bruno Schultz, whom I will get around to discussing sometime in the near future…

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Švejk and old Mrs. Müller / Josef Lada

But the illustrations are awesome. They conjure up everything I always associated with Eastern Europe. They are iconic, they are simple, they have thick black lines. They made me want to find out more about the illustrator, Josef Lada, who seems to be pretty well-known in his native Czech Republic, but I had a hard time finding much information about him on the internet, especially as I can’t really even pretend to understand Czech.

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Chaplain and soldiers / Josef Lada

Lada’s work combines a couple of things I’m into recently in the realm of visual arts. I’d like to learn more about art trends in Central and Eastern Europe from the late-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century — I know a little about German Expressionism, but that’s about it. Also, I’ve become very curious about illustration over time, from woodcuts to graphic novels, and Lada is one I will keep my eye on as I pursue this interest further.

Finally, I think the Austro-Hungarian Empire is one of history’s more fascinating sociopolitical structures, and I am enjoying that aspect of both the book and the illustrations. Austrian officers come into conflict with their Czech soldiers; Poles and Hungarians and Romanians make occasional appearances; Russians are the enemies and Germans are the distant allies. People get by with a polyglot of languages, with German playing the overarching role that English plays in Europe today. It’s an interesting case study and helps me to recognize how the modern world is not so novel after all: the tension between multiculturalism and monoculture, and the crisis of cultural imperialism, have existed for a long long time.

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A psychological examination / Josef Lada