Czech Books From Oslo to Omsk and beyond: a Norwegian in search of Švejk
Ever since Jaroslav Hašek first thought him up in the early 1920s, the “Good Soldier Švejk” has been one of the best loved characters in Czech literature, as he undermines the authority of the Austrian monarchy through his feigned stupidity. In Czech Books this week, David Vaughan meets one of the foremost Švejkologists from outside the Czech Republic.
I started corresponding with the Norwegian Švejkologist, Jomar Hønsi, after devoting a recent edition of Czech Books to a new English translation of some of Jaroslav Hašek’s short stories. The stories capture some of Hašek’s dramatic adventures during the First World War, which took him to the far east of Russia and back, and these same experiences inspired Hašek’s great work, “The Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk”. Like so many readers over the generations, Jomar Hønsi fell in love with the book and he had the idea of following in the footsteps of Hašek and his fictional anti-hero. His fascination has taken him half way across the world and led him to set up a remarkable Švejk website. Last week, Jomar Hønsi was in Prague on one of his frequent visits to this country, and I asked him how it all started.
“The first time I actually became conscious of Hašek was through the British ‘Rough Guide’, around 1990, and then I borrowed Švejk in a library and became utterly fascinated. From 2004 onwards I started to research more thoroughly what was behind Hašek, and the circumstances and the time he lived in, and what could have inspired this great novel.”
You come from rural Norway originally. I’m wondering what it was that made you feel an affinity with Hašek and his character Švejk – the little man passively resisting the military and bureaucratic might of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
“I already had a lot of interests that came together in Švejk. Geography is an important part of it, history, the Czech Lands, of course, the Czech pubs, the beer, travelling… It’s all there, so I was ready-made for Švejk, I think. But it’s not only that. I obviously appreciate the incredible satirical quality of it – how it uncovers all sorts of nonsense. Hašek was an excellent ‘bullshit detector’. That’s the word Joseph Heller used in ‘Catch 22’, but I think it’s just as relevant to Hašek.”
“There are still power structures that abuse their subjects. These exist and they will always exist, so Švejk will always be relevant, whatever happens, whoever rules, wherever, whenever.”
You began to be interested in Švejk at just the right time because it was just at the time when borders were beginning to open, and you took advantage of that.
“I did. In 2010 I did a half-year trip in the footsteps of Jaroslav Hašek…”
So you just gave up your job, dropped everything and headed off?
“They let me have six months off, so I’m eternally thankful to the people who allowed me to do that! I couldn’t have done this in 1990. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t have travelled in Russia freely as I did. It would have been a practical nightmare with spot visas and pre-paid accommodation and probably as much work preparing it as doing the travelling itself.”
So there was less bureaucracy, but there must have been an enormous amount of preparation involved in choosing where to go and why.
“The first inspiration I got from a map in Cecil Parrott’s translation. I thought this is a good itinerary.”
The map is in the most famous English translation of Švejk…
“… from the 1970s. I followed this little map in 2004, though not precisely, and then I met people who actually inspired me further. One of them was Dr Pavel Gan in Göttingen. Another one was Richard Hašek, the grandson of Jaroslav Hašek. And then in 2008 I was, to my big surprise, invited to a Hašek conference at Lipnice. That was the turning point. I started to make the webpage and decided to do the trip.”
And to explain a little bit to people who don’t know Hašek – he had the most extraordinary adventures during the First World War, travelling first in the Austro-Hungarian army, then in the Czechoslovak Legions, then in the Red Army, from Central Europe all the way to Siberia. There must have been a lot of research needed to work out where he went and when.
“Absolutely. The first stage of the trip I did the easy way. I followed Švejk, and, by 2010, I knew exactly where those places were. So I actually did it. That stage ended in Zhovtantsi in Ukraine, just north-east of Lviv, by the river Bug. So that was easy. It was more difficult afterwards when I decided to follow what presumably would have been Švejk’s route, which was Hašek’s own odyssey through the Ukraine, in captivity in Russia, back in the Czechoslovak Legion. He crossed over to the Bolsheviks under circumstances that are disputed even to this day. He spent two years in the Red Army and then returned to Prague where he gave up politics, it seems, and started to drink and write Švejk. So I followed Hašek from various sources in Russia and based on these sources I made an itinerary, which roughly, I think, corresponds to Hašek’s own trip – as far as Irkutsk and beyond Lake Baikal to a place called Gusinoye Ozero, which is almost in Mongolia. And then I started to retreat to Europe, also by train, to Narva in Estonia, and back through Germany – Berlin – to Prague.”
And when you were travelling to all these places, did you find that people in the towns you were visiting knew about the connection with Hašek and Švejk?
“Almost everyone knew who Švejk was and who Hašek was, almost without exception – from Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, but they were more bemused by the fact that I, as a Norwegian, was actually travelling in the footsteps of Jaroslav Hašek. A lot of people just couldn’t understand it. They shook their heads. They asked where I was from. From Norway. ‘Ah, very cold,’ they said, even in Siberia.”
“A lot of them had obviously read the book – and it’s still very popular in Russia and everywhere where Hašek actually was. In Ukraine there are some wonderfully illustrated editions of the novel.”
And I understand that there’s not just interest in Švejk and Hašek in the countries of the former Soviet Union, but there are also Švejk pubs.
“Yes, I went first to one in Moscow, where there was not only Czech beer, but also sushi. I don’t know if Švejk would have approved of such a combination but sushi is very popular in Russia. There’s a Švejk pub in Samara – a lovely pub, there’s a Švejk pub in Omsk, there’s another one in Irkutsk, which is particularly good, in ulitsa Karla Marksa [Karl Marx Street].”
And as you were travelling with Švejk in mind, did you find yourself at times imagining that you were reliving some of these stories? Did you have some of your own adventures, which somehow made you feel you were getting under the skin of both Švejk and Hašek?
“I wouldn’t say that because the circumstances are so different. There was nobody there shooting at me. The worst thing I experienced was insects biting, and people nicked my computer and my camera, but I can’t imagine what the soldiers went through. But I got a geographical sense of what Hašek did, the enormous distances and the changing circumstances he was in. He was on many sides in this conflict: he was an Austrian soldier, he became a Czech rebel, he even identified with the Tsarist regime for a while – because they were anti-Austrian, not for anything else, I think – and he became a Bolshevik. Then suddenly he wasn’t a Bolshevik any more. He became a bohemian – an author – again, and then unfortunately he died – from his bohemian lifestyle, I guess.”
And I have to draw our listeners’ attention to your website, www.honsi.org, because it really is labyrinthine, with all the links you have there to different aspects of Švejk’s adventures in the novel, to Hašek’s own journey, and you also have links to all sorts of other academic research and other websites. It does show all the ominous signs of obsession, I would say!
Let’s have a quick look at your website. It’s beautifully designed. I understand that your day job is with computers.
“Yes, I am a computer software engineer, a design engineer and also a programmer. I wouldn’t say my profession is web design, but I know the mechanisms behind it, which partly overlaps with my work.”
You’ve just opened the page “Places”, and here we have all the different places that are mentioned in the novel and links from them.
“Yes, I think at the moment I’ve got about 650 places that are mentioned in the novel, but there are more and I will have to add more than 150 over the next year or so to get it reasonably complete. I thought it was complete, but it wasn’t!”
And you’ve also got people who figure in the novel; you’ve got background about Hašek. It’s all there.
“Well, in Norwegian it is relatively complete. In English I’m only up to doing the people and the places, and a short tourism section.”
And what’s going to be the next step? Clearly you haven’t worked through your obsession with Hašek just yet.
“I aim to complete the web pages, particularly on the geography and the people in the novel. I also do more specific, ‘scientific’ work, such as visiting archives and photoing documents, and digitalizing them to make them available to others who would never have the chance to go to an archive here for instance.”
And finally, you mentioned at the beginning of the interview that you share Švejk’s love of beer…
“For twenty or more years I’ve been interested in beer. I try to taste as many as possible – not necessarily to drink as much as possible, but over-indulgence can happen. I particularly like the atmosphere in the Czech pubs. The beer is consistently good.”
And you do have a bit of a look of one of Josef Lada’s drawings that illustrate Švejk. I’m sure that there’s an affinity that goes very deep down inside you.
“This is the first time I’ve heard that, but there could be an affinity that I’m not able myself to analyse. It’s an interesting thought.”