Jaroslav Hašek: The Improbable Titan of Czech Literature
Jaroslav Hašek, author of the most translated Czech book The Good Soldier Švejk, died 100 years ago today ( January 3, 1923) before he had reached the age of forty. Vit Pohanka looks at the life and work of this improbable titan of Czech literature.
The adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk during the World War is considered to be one of the gems of European, if not world literature. This satirical anti-war novel was not an immediate success when it was first published. Some Czech critics even considered it “pulp fiction”. But a century after the author’s death Švejk is more than just a classic literary character: he is a phenomenon. Professor Pavel Janoušek works at the Institute of Czech Literature of the Czech Academy of Sciences:
“Švejk is a literary type that reaches the level of Don Quixote by Cervantes or Anna Karenina by Tolstoy. These are characters that in a way leave the original literary work and live their own life. People know (or think they know) who they are even without reading the books. There is no doubt that if Hašek had not written The Good Soldier Švejk he would never have gained such a high level of international acclaim and recognition.”
The writer spent the last years of his life in the small town of Lipnice nad Sázavou. His descendants now run a restaurant and a guesthouse where Jaroslav Hašek spent the last two years of his life and where he wrote his most famous work: The Good Soldier Švejk, or more precisely The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War. It is there that I met with the author’s great-grandson Martin Hašek:
“I first realized that my ancestor had to be a very important man when I was about four, five, or six. We would come here every year for the Festival of Fun: Haškova Lipnice. We would always lay a wreath at his grave, there were always quite famous people taking part in the festivities and I gradually started to understand the significance of this place. That my great-grandfather wrote something really important and that I am a part of that heritage.”
Jaroslav Hašek based the novel on his own very rich experience from the First World War. The story is a bit complicated, but I think it needs to be briefly mentioned, if we want to understand the irony and black humor of his work. First, he served in the Austrian-Hungarian infantry on the eastern front in what is now Ukraine. Soon, he was captured by the Russians, and after some time in a prisoner-of-war camp, he joined the Czechoslovak Legion. This was an army of Czechs and Slovaks, who decided to fight on the side of the Allies for the independence of their not yet existing country.
But after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, everything got more complicated again: Soviet Russia stopped fighting and signed a peace treaty with Germany and Austria-Hungary. The Czechoslovak Legions started an epic Odyssey trying to get to the West by traveling via the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Vladivostok in the Russian Far East and then by boat to Europe. They started fighting the Bolsheviks - but not Jaroslav Hašek. He sympathized with the Red Army and joined its ranks. Thus, he in fact deserted the Czechoslovak Legion and stayed mostly in Siberia until 1920 working as a de facto communist official. He had to spend some time in hiding and when he returned to his country, and there was a good reason for him not to stay in Prague where he was well known, explains his great-grandson Martin:
“The legionaries felt it was a serious betrayal and indicted him. If they had caught him somewhere in Siberia, they would probably have shot him for treason. He stayed with the Red Army until 1921 and only then returned to Prague. Those former legionaries who knew him and met him would cross the street so that they would not need to speak to him. It is likely that if he had met them somewhere in a pub after several beers there would have been a violent confrontation.”
“That was probably the reason why his friends thought it would be better to set him up a bit with the help of his painter friend Jaroslav Panuška. He took him to the pub at the Těšnov Railway Station in Prague and suggested he come with him to Lipnice. They arrived at the nearest station some eight kilometers away at about half past noon. It is not such a long walk but they stopped in all the village pubs on the way so they got there at around midnight. When Jaroslav woke up the next day, he allegedly said: “Great! I am happy! Finally, I live in a pub!”
So Jaroslav Hašek was by no means an ascetic living on bread and water. He drank alcohol albeit mainly beer on a daily basis, ate heartily, and spent much of his working life in pubs and bars all over Prague and other Czech towns. By the time he arrived in Lipnice, he was dangerously obese. He was soon joined by Šura, his second wife, whom he had married in Russia. Since he did not bother to divorce his first Czech wife whom he married before the war, it was only his good luck that he did not face charges of polygamy. Given his well-documented Bohemian lifestyle, I wonder how he found the time and the mental energy to actually sit down and write. Martin Hašek explains.
“Naturally, he needed money and so he did what he could do best: writing. He hired the son of the local gendarme Kliment Štěpánek, who was quite educated and knew how to write in shorthand. So Švejk was dictated. Kliment accompanied him to the pub where my great-grandfather liked to host various tramps or stonemasons with beer and small talk. At a certain moment, Jaroslav Hašek would say: “Stop!”, and he would dictate, say, two pages of Švejk, young Štěpánek wrote it down, and then they would continue drinking. At other times, he would dictate a short story. “
Although Jaroslav Hašek spent the last two years of his life practically living in a pub, he was able to write the first two volumes of the Good Soldier Švejk and simultaneously produce short stories for various Prague magazines. Martin Hašek says he was able to earn enough money to buy a small house in Lipnice not far from his favorite pub:
“This is where he spent the last days of his life. As you can see, it has been turned into a small museum now. This is his room with his last bed, and the high boots that he brought back from Russia together with a samovar. That was used mainly by his Russian wife. Over there you can see the large pitcher that he used to send to the pub for beer, allegedly up to three times a day.”
“We measured it and it can hold 15 to 20 large glasses of beer, depending on whether the person sent for the beer was strong enough to carry it full or half full. So, we believe, if he was thirsty, he could have easily drunk some thirty beers a day. “
It’s probably little wonder then that The Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War remained unfinished. Jaroslav Hašek intended to write four volumes but only finished two. Readers do not seem to mind. To date the book has been translated into 58 languages.