Josef Lada, illustrations to The good soldier Švejk.
Having featured the character of Švejk under The great siege of Przemyśl (cf. Why the First World War failed to end), I was prompted to explore further the life of his creator Jaroslav Hašek (1883–1923) (see under Czech stories).
Like so many Czechoslovak personalities, Hašek ran the gauntlet of differing assessments according to the prevailing political doctrines of the time. From his death until 1939 he was looked on as a “bad bohemian”; from 1939–45 (under the Germans) he was outlawed and his books burnt; from 1945–48, thanks largely to Communist influence, he was rehabilitated to a limited extent; and since 1948, after a brief period of uncertainty, he has almost been canonised.
Thus, ironically, Hašek became a “hero of Communism”, and Švejk approved reading for the Czechoslovak army. But
Had Hašek not been disillusioned about politics but engaged himself more deeply in party activities, it is almost certain that with time he would have been expelled from the Party too, because by his very nature he could not be anything but a non-conformist. His experiences in Prague soon after his return cooled his ardour and, paradoxically enough, his subsequent withdrawal from political activity was to prove his saving grace and to earn him later a place in the Communist canon.
Indeed, this whole history was submerged as Švejk became a theme for tourist pub-crawls (to which I also plead guilty).
Beermat from U Kalicha, as borrowed from my trip to Prague in 1980.
As Parrott describes in chapter 7 of The bad Bohemian, Hašek had already thought up the character of Švejk by 1911, well before the war, when he published five stories, which Parrott translates in The Red Commissar (1981).
One evening he had returned home very exhausted. Hardly had he woken up next morning when [his wife] Jarmila saw him feverishly searching for a scrap of paper which he had left about the night before. Before going to bed he had jotted down on it a “brilliant idea” and to his horror had now completely forgotten it.
Jarmila goes on:
In the meantime I had thrown it on to the rubbish heap. (Jarmila had a fetish for tidiness.) Hašek rushed to search for it and was delighted when he found it. He carefully picked up the crumpled note-paper, read its contents, crumpled it up again and threw it away. Meanwhile I rescued it again and preserved it. On it I saw clearly written and underlined the heading of a story, “The booby in the company”. Underneath was a sentence which was just legible: “He had himself examined to prove that he was capable of serving as a regular soldier”. After that came some further words which were illegible.
Parrott explains, “At a time when no Czech wanted to be classified as mentally or physically fit for service, the ‘booby in the company’ was literally asking for it!”
In The good soldier Švejk Hašek offers few clues that he might suffer from any delusions of political engagement. Parrott describes the japes of his early years—his hoaxes, spoof articles for The animal world, and his brilliantly-named Party for Moderate and Peaceful Progress within the Bounds of the Law, “designed largely to satisfy Hašek’s innate thirst for exhibitionism and partly to bolster the finances of the pub where election meetings were held” (see also stories in The Red Commissar).
This seems to have been the extent of his propensity for leadership at the time.
* * *
So it’s hard to square Hašek’s bohemian, alcohol-fuelled capers before the War, and after his return to Prague in 1920, with his interlude of commitment and responsibility in revolutionary Russia.
As Parrott notes, Slav prisoners of war were treated abysmally; Hašek was lucky to survive. After a spell in the Czech Legion in Russia, at first he worked as propagandist in Kiev, while continuing to write satirical sketches. He soon found himself in charge of an army detachment.
These years were a convulsive period when people had to juggle personal survival with shifting, murky political allegiances. With the Russian revolutions of 1917 Hašek’s loyalties shifted from monarchism to Bolshevism. From 1918 he broke with the Czech Legion to spend two years in the Red Army, soon becoming a leading figure in the town of Bugulma in southeastern Tatarstan during the civil war.
Parrott opens The Red commissar with Hašek’s nine short Bugulma stories. Like Švejk, the persona of Hašek here blurs the lines between fact and fiction. As Parrott observes, while the stories are satirical, they give a mellow, benevolent view of the convulsive social changes then under way.
With Hašek’s constant aversion to authority, the stories revolve around how he outmanouevres the belligerent yet hopelessly dimwitted Comrade Yerokhymov, Commander of the Tver Revolutionary Regiment. Hašek generally ends up having to give counter-orders to such proclamations by Yerokhymov as
To the whole population of Bugulma and its Region!
I order everyone in the whole town and region who cannot read and write to learn to do so within three days. Anyone found to be illiterate after this time will be shot.
Commandant of the Town, Yerokhymov
Also featured is the enmity between the local Chuvash and Cheremis, and their shared bemusement at the struggles they now found themselves caught up in.
In addition to the Bashkirs the Petrograders brought in other prisoners, youths in peasant sandals, aged seventeen to nineteen, who had been mobilised by the Whites and had been watching for the first opportunity to make a bolt.
There were about three hundred of them, emaciated young men in tattered homespuns. Among them were Tartars, Mordvins, and Cheremisses, who knew as much about the significance of the civil war as they did about the solution of equations to the power of x.
Parrott retells another story:
A member of the Central Committee came to Ufa and at once searched for me!
“You’re Comrade Gashek, aren’t you?”
“You’re a former legionary, aren’t you?”
He looked at me sternly, straight in the eyes.
“Yes, I am.”
“You’re from Prague, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Comrade Gashek, you’re a great drunkard. Isn’t that right?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Comrade Gashek, everything’s all one to you—there’s nothing sacred, right?”
“When you were at home they say you were everything—Anarchist, Social Democrat and working in editorial offices all over the place. Is that correct?”
“Khorosho [good]! You don’t deny anything. You’re a good man.”
After his departure in about a fortnight, I was appointed inspector of the Fifth Red Army.
He spent time as Commissar in Ufa, capital of the Bashkir Autonomous Republic—where he was involved in purges, and began a relationship that became a bigamous marriage.
His language skills came into play:
He spoke some Russian, Polish, German, and Hungarian, and later learned some Bashkir as well as a little Chinese. Indeed, his “pidgin” Chinese seems to have great success with the Chinese prisoners-of-war.
He continued studying Chinese in 1920 when posted to Irkutsk in western Siberia, and published a report of his work among the Chinese Communists (for the 1956–57 film of Švejk dubbed into Chinese, see here; and note The definitive transliteration). There too he learned the Buryat language, founding its first ever journal—earning him the title “father of the nation” there. But clues to a planned mission to Mongolia remain elusive.
Accounts differ over Hašek’s alleged abstention from alcohol during this period.
Summoned back to Prague in 1920 by the Czechoslovak Bureau of Agitation and Propaganda (attached to the Central Committee of the Russian Bolshevik Party), his early death in 1923 rescued him from having to confront the more disturbing ramifications of his political involvement, and from learning the limits of satire under the new regime.