Czech Books Jaroslav Hašek: not just The Good Soldier Švejk
Jaroslav Hašek is known the world over for his epic satirical novel, “The Good Soldier Švejk”. It tells of the adventures of a Czech soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I, drawing richly from the author’s own experiences. But Hašek was also a prolific writer of short stories. Even though he died before his fortieth birthday, he produced nearly fifteen hundred stories, and we can now enjoy a selection of these in English in a new translation by Mark Corner. David Vaughan reports.
Jaroslav Hašek had an adventurous life. As a young man before WWI he worked as a journalist, moving in Czech anarchist and bohemian circles. So it is no surprise that when he set up his own political party in 1911, parodying the political scene of the time, he chose to do so in a pub. When the war broke out, he joined the Austro-Hungarian army, but from 1916 he fought on the other side - in the Czechoslovak Legions. Then came the Russian Revolution and Hašek joined the Red Army, spending four years in Russia before eventually finding his way back to Prague in 1920. He died just three years later. During all his adventures Hašek never stopped writing with sharp, satirical humour, and crossing the borders between journalism, memoir and fiction.
The Carolinum Press has put together a cross section of his short stories, which have now been translated by Mark Corner. I asked Mark to tell me more about the collection, which goes under the title “Behind the Lines”.
“What I liked about the collection is that the stories all present a world which is rent apart by conflict, by revolution, by war. You’ve got the revolution in Russia, you’ve got the civil war following the revolution in Russia, you’ve got the First World War, which has just ended, travel is chaotic, boundaries are being constantly redrawn, hierarchies are being replaced. We see this in the Bugulma stories, where one minute Švejk is in charge, then it’s Gašek – and so on and so forth…”
I should add that Bugulma is a town in Russia – in Tatarstan – where Hašek did actually find himself as a Red Army officer – as deputy commandant of the town. At the time he was committed to the revolution.
“That’s right. He did embrace the cause to some extent, but he also found the violence, often very arbitrary violence, on both sides of the Russian Civil War something intolerable. I essentially think of him as a traveller in a disordered universe, where there aren’t the boundaries that normally exist, whether in terms of human behaviour or simply the physical boundaries between nations. There’s even a story about how he met the author of his own obituary, as if even death itself was a boundary that he was able to come back from to chastise the author of a mean obituary.”
So, here is a short extract from that story.
I found the author of my obituary in one of Prague’s wine bars on the
stroke of midnight, the hour when its shuts its doors in accordance with
some imperial ruling dating from the 18th April, 1856.
His eyes were fixed on the ceiling. The tables were being relieved of their stained tablecloths. I sat down at his and said in an affable way: ‘Permit me to ask whether this seat is free.’
He went on scrutinising some unrecognisable mark on the ceiling which seemed to have captured his interest, before replying in a reasonable enough way: ‘It is, but the place is about to close; I doubt whether they’ll serve you.’
I took hold of his arm and he turned to face me. He spent a while observing me without a word. Finally he said in a quiet voice: ‘Excuse me, but haven’t you been in Russia?’
I laughed: ‘You recognise me, then? I was killed in a low Russian dive brawling with some rough drunken sailors.’
The colour went out of him. ‘You are… it’s you….’
‘Exactly right,’ I said emphatically, ‘I was killed by sailors in a tavern in Odessa and in the light of my death you wrote my obituary.’
Words came in the form of a faintly audible gasp: ‘You’ve read what I wrote about you?’
‘Naturally. It’s a very interesting obituary, apart from one or two little misunderstandings. And unusually long into the bargain. Even His Imperial Highness received fewer lines upon His royal decease. Your magazine devoted 152 lines to him and 186 to myself. At 35 hellers* a line (how miserable a pittance they used to give journalists) that makes 55 crowns and 15 hellers in all.’
‘What exactly do you want from me?’ he asked in panic. ‘Do you want those 55 crowns and 15 hellers?’
‘Keep your money,’ I replied, ‘the dead do not demand a fee for their obituaries.’
“It is a great deal of fun, and I’m very fortunate because all the translations I’ve done so far for the Carolinum Press have all had a comic element, and I’ve asked for that because I think it’s something I do better than I would do other forms of writing, and this is very much in line with that.”
We spoke a little while about about Hašek’s experiences in Bugulma in Russia. Let’s now hear a bit from one of the Bugulma stories.
“This is where there’s a certain misunderstanding on the part of some nuns, who are being dragooned into providing – well, they’re not quite sure what services they’re being dragooned into providing! They’ve been asked to help the Petersburg cavalry regiment and in fact, all they have to do is clean out the barracks. But they think that they’re being asked to provide other services…”
When the procession arrives in front of my official residence, I go out
solemnly and ask the abbess to accept bread and salt as proof that I hold
no hostile intent. In addition I invite the Orthodox clergy to take a slice
of bread. One by one they come to kiss the icon.
‘Men and women of the Orthodox Church,’ I begin with solemnity, ‘I would like to thank you for a splendid and unusually eye-catching Procession of the Cross. I saw it today for the first time in my life and it has left an impression which will last until my death. Seeing this chanting crowd of nuns here, I am reminded of those early Christian processions in the time of Emperor Nero. I take it that some of you have read Quo vadis? In any case, men and women of Orthodoxy, I do not wish to try your patience any further. I asked for only fifty nuns, but now I see that the whole convent is here, which should enable us to get everything over and done with more quickly. I would therefore ask the maidens from the nunnery to follow me to the barracks.’
The crowds stand bare-headed before me and sing in response: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament sheweth His handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech and night unto night sheweth knowledge.’
The abbess steps forward in front of me. Her aged chin trembles as she asks me: ‘In the name of the Lord God of Hosts, what are we going to do there? Do not plunge your soul into ruin.’
‘Hosts of Orthodoxy,’ I shout to the crowd, ‘There are floors to be scrubbed and a barracks to be made clean so that the Petersburg Cavalry Regiment can be quartered there. Now let’s get on with it.’
The crowd follow in my wake and by evening, with such a workforce of willing hands, the barracks are in perfect order.
In the evening a comely young nun brings me a small icon and a note from the aged abbess containing the simplest of sentences: ‘I am praying for you.’
Now I sleep in peace because I know that to this day, among the old oak forests of Bugulma, there is a Convent of the Most Holy Mother of God, where an old abbess lives and prays for a sinner like me who is nothing worth.
These stories are very firmly placed in the time of the Russian Revolution, the Russian Civil War, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the beginnings of Czechoslovakia. It’s all a long way away for us today. Do you think that the stories are dated?
“I have a colleague at the university where I teach in Brussels, who always says to me, ‘If you want a new idea, read an old book.’ I think there’s more that’s new and more that provokes thought in something written a hundred years ago than something written a hundred hours ago, which may, for various reasons, be saying things that you feel you know already. I think that Hašek is still very relevant, and the sense of being a traveller in a disordered universe does bear some parallels with the modern day. Coping with a globalized world, there are similar ways in which one can feel discomforted by the loss of clear forms of identification that used to exist.”
Let’s hear a third extract. This time it’s from a story that describes the departure of Czechs, who have been fighting in the Russian Civil War. They’re going back home via Tallinn in Estonia by boat.
The train comes to the end of the line. We have reached a pier and are
alongside a cargo steamer called the Cyprus, while another steamer lies at
anchor between us and the island of Silgit.
On the waterside a deputation from some association of Tallinn women and girls with a pastor at their head is waiting for us. They hand out newspapers from our homeland, while a choir of girls and women sings touchingly in German:
If you wish to be happy in this world
You must repent of all your sin
For blessing even in death unfurled
And the breath of divine love to win
Half an hour later the pastor and his choir have been dunked in the sea, while with a terrible cry of ‘Hurra!’ we all make a beeline for the Cyprus moored by the pier.
The crew of the Cyprus, for the most part experienced old sea dogs, gave us short shrift. It was like a shepherd counting sheep into a pen. They take hold of each sheep by its fleece and toss it in. Each person ran the gamut of a tourniquet as several pairs of hairy and brawny nautical arms passed him further down the line until he found himself somewhere below deck and assigned to one of the groups of ten lowest of the lows now sprouting in the hold like mushrooms after rain. By the time that he’d recovered his senses he found himself with his group at a second exit in the other end of the boat. He received a loaf of bread, a tin of meat, a spoon, a metal plate and a cup and found himself back in his place in the hold. Within half an hour the whole group had been supplied, seated and satisfied.
The engineer finds his spirits returning and continues expounding: ‘A person replete is a person content, but a hungry man can never achieve happiness.’
He has a very small audience around him, but this cannot prevent the unassailable outpourings from pouring out:
‘Before we can set off the steamship will have to weigh anchor and they’ll have to stoke the fires to get the boilers going. If it was a sailing ship, it would have to wait for a favourable wind. Without wind a sailing ship cannot move, just as a car can go nowhere without petrol.’
The Cyprus signals to the line of little steamboats supervising harbour traffic that we are on our way and a reply is signalled back: ‘Your passage is clear’. With the steam turbines sending us on our way with a whistle, we say farewell to the banks of Estonia, enveloped in a rolling mist as if they wanted to say: ‘There’s no point in looking behind you, you’ve lived through nothing with us that’s worth looking back on.’
I always look forward to your translations of some of the lesser known Czech classics. What should we look forward to next?
“Next it’s going to be a difficult one. It’s Ladislav Fuks and a novel published in 1970, which in English would be ‘Natálie Mooshabr’s Mice’. It’s a little bit a grotesque gothic horror story, but it’s a grotesque gothic horror story set in a dream world of science fiction, with people driving in horse carts and having weddings in rural inns, but at the same time subways and satellite airports, and there’s a colony on the Moon. It’s a bizarre book, but I’m rather taken with it.”