Hašek’s Puzzles

Jaroslav Hašek, Pocztówki z c.k. monarchii i krajów ościennych. Wędrówki po c.k. monarchii (i nie tylko). Selected and translated by Anna Dorota Kamińska. Oficyna Wydawnicza Przybylik, Warszawa 2014.

Among the myriad puzzles comprising the biography of Jaroslav Hašek, one not insignificant place is occupied by the question of his alleged connections with Franz Kafka. They were both born in the spring of 1883 in Prague, the historical capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia, which in their lifetime underwent an unbelievable metamorphosis. While in the mid-19th century the city appeared German through and through to an uninformed newcomer, just thirty years later, thanks to the mass migration of the rural population and the growth of native education, national culture and entrepreneurship, it showed a Slavic face to the world. Against the 415 000 Czechs living in Prague there were now only 10 000 Germans and 25 000 Jews, most of whom (14 000) spoke Czech in their daily life (which led to something characteristic for the genius loci of the city, namely that the Jews formed the majority of German-speaking citizens of Prague). “It is strange that the authorities tolerate the Czech language here,” said the eponymous character of the humorous sketch by Jaroslav Hašek called „Adela Thoms from Haida, a German teacher.”“Why, twenty years ago Prague was completely German.”“We have Bohemianized Prague,” explains the narrator to her. “Next in the line is Vienna. (…) And in thirty years Berlin will certainly be Czech, completely Czech.”

It did not quite work out that way, although there were more than half a million Czechs in Vienna then (1911). In the last decades of the Habsburg Monarchy immigrants from the Bohemian and Moravian countryside settled in the Royal and Imperial Vienna and Prague in their mass. First-generation Viennese were Sigmund Freud (born in Příbor), Edmund Husserl (Prostějov) or Gustav Mahler (Kaliště near Humpolec). Also the most famous citizens of Prague, Jaroslav Hašek and Franz Kafka, were the sons of newcomers to the Bohemian capital. And both— as was becoming for the children of an epoch which discovered not only wage migrations but also tourism—were avid travelers.

A widespread view of Kafka as a gloomy loner who did not put a foot outside his office has little to do with reality. “It is sometimes forgotten that Kafka, except for the last stage of his illness, travelled a lot, with friends or on his own—he was in Paris, Milan and Zürich, as well as in Vienna, Weimar, Budapest and Berlin,” wrote the American literary scholar (and a native of Prague) Peter Demetz. When in the summer of 1909 Max Brod persuaded his friend to go with him on an outing to Riva on the Garda Lake, Kafka bent over backwards just to get out of the office. “As early as June 17, 1909, he informed his superiors—in writing, on a company letterhead—that his nerves had been failing for a long time, which caused digestive problems and insomnia. On August 18, when the plans for a trip to Riva emerged, he supplemented his application with a diagnosis of a wellknown specialist, who confirmed that after three years of continuous work Dr. Franz Kafka ‘begins to feel fatigue and nervousness and suffers from frequent headaches.’ The company acted flawlessly. Not even 48 hours had passed (so much for the famous Austrian bureaucracy) before Kafka was informed that his application had been accepted and on August 20th he received the news that the director had availed himself of an extraordinary procedure to grant him an eight-day holiday.”

Kafka went to Riva by train, using the well-developed railway network in Cisleithania (Riva belonged to Austria then). The route went through Munich, Innsbruck, Bolzano and Mori. As we know, Hašek preferred to travel on foot (“I was supposed to go by train from Moravian Ostrava to Prague, but a little game of cards at the station prevented that.” Miss Glory). He started his first journey in the summer of 1900, while still a student at the Academy of Economics. He visited Slovakia, a popular destination of the Prague youth and intellectuals (who under the influence of these peregrinations started to dream about annexing the neighboring country to Bohemia). A year later he explored the “Galician foot of the Tatras,”that is the land of “Zator, Kraków, Tarnów, and turned back towards Nowy Targ, reached Zakopane and from there he crossed to Slovakia. It was still a typical student trip with multiple stops and overnight stays in the rectories and schools he passed,”wrote Józef Magnuszewski. It was his third summer outing (1902) to Galicia and Hungary that took on a much more free atmosphere. “A graduate of the academia, faced with an immediate perspective of a boring job in a bank, he not only talked to highlanders, peasants and vagabonds, but also shared their discomforts and let loose the reins of his temperament and thirst for adventure. And in late May 1903, Hašek struck out for a real several-monthslong trek, waving goodbye to the bank and clerical career. The route of this journey, which was hard to reconstruct and is only probable in some sections, runs through Macedonia (were an anti-Turkish rising had just broken out), Bulgaria, Hungary and the Galician side of the Carpathian Forest, around Stanislaviv and Kolomyia, Bukovina, and then the Tatras, Zakopane, Nowy Targ, Myślenice through to Kraków. From here Hašek attempted an unfortunate crossing of the border with Russia; he wanted to get to the Kingdom of Poland, but he landed in a Tsarist jail. Escorted back to Kraków, he spent two months in the local jail as a suspected vagabond, until the matter was explained. When he was going back to Prague on foot through Cieszyn and Moravia, he was looking so shabby that in Frýdek he was arrested again. So when he walked on, he took care to inform his friends by letter how he looked.”

Radko Pytlík believes that Hašek probably never visited the Balkans. As a young man Hašek wanted to fight against the Turks, but his battle virtues were probably remindful of those of “Mr W., Correspondent of the big Berlin daily” (“From Nikopol to Rushchuk: Memories from a Journey”). Nevertheless his youthful explorations are quite impressive. It is not easy to imagine a contemporary author who would, for example, arrive in Helštýn on the Bečva and introduce himself to a local teacher in the following way: “Hello, I am the writer Jaroslav Hašek from Prague and I would like to ask you for a meal and if you had some trousers,” (Miss Glory).

The stories collected in the volume Postcards from the Imperial and Royal Monarchy and the neighbouring countries are the aftermath of four youthful wanderings by the author. Some of them, written down almost in the heat of the moment after coming back home, are still just literary exercises; others, for example the very funny “Magyar Sea,” anticipate an outstanding humorist. Already in these early works, casually scribbled at a tavern table, stupidity (blbost) turns out to be the basic theme of Jaroslav Hašek’s writings. Not some ordinarily stupidity, but stupidity elevated to the rank of the chief principle ruling the world. Hašek is going to discover that the best response to the stupidity of politicians, custom officers, guards, bureaucrats, spies, sergeants, priests and the whole mass of other morons—the prototypes of the characters from Švejk, is—to use their own words—“fooling around big time.”

He was not alone in this sentiment. The protagonist of the humorous sketch “Austrian Custom Officers,” run over by a fast train “near Dresden, during a trip” and then put together by doctors, got stuck in Saxony for good, for when trying to cross the border he did not declare importing a piece of silver (with which the back of his skull was replaced), platinum (standing in for his ribs), a horse bone (specifically a thigh bone) and porcine kidney. “If you want to get to Bohemia, the kidney has to stay in Germany,” concludes the customs officer.

This clerical absurdity reminds us of something. Kafka perhaps? Bingo! Our heroes were destined for a bureaucratic career, but both rebelled against it and the bourgeois environment in their own way. Already as a very young man, Hašek discredited himself so successfully in the eyes of the so-called better society that the best he could dream of was the job of the editor of the World of Animals journal (and he managed to hold on to it for just six months). And Kafka, following the will of his parents, graduated in law (1906) and for almost 15 years worked in the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia, but he also did not renounce his literary ambitions. In fact, he was highly esteemed and liked by his superiors, who officially praised him for “literary talent” (allegedly manifested in his reports published in the company’s yearly magazine).

Kafka’s duties involved frequent official trips to the area of Reichenberg (Liberec) in northern Bohemia. At that time it was one of the best developed industrial regions in Europe. We still have Kafka’s drawings showing typical finger injuries which “even the most cautious worker” would sooner or later incur (as he wrote in a report encouraging the introduction of safe round shafts in planers). “It is from there that Kafka brought his knowledge about the destructive industrial system, which probably no other writer of his generation possessed,” claims Klaus Wagenbach. Only a few years later, during the First World War, when the involved states “turned into gigantic conveyor belt of weapons factories, trying to be able to send arms around the clock to the front, were the bloody—and yet completely mechanized— process of consumption played the role of the market,” as the author of “The Conscription of Troops” wrote. The knowledge about an“army turned into a factory producing death,” became the generational experience of the combatants such as Ernst Jünger, Erich Maria Remarque or Jaroslav Hašek himself.

Kafka avoided conscription due to ill health, but thanks to the profound familiarity with the factory system he realized even before the war what an armed conflict involving the greatest industrial powers of the word would look like. According to his biographer, his professional experiences led him to develop an interest in social matters. And this interest brought him to Klub Mladých (Club of the Young), a Czech society promoting socialist and antimilitarist ideas, were he supposedly met Jaroslav Hašek, “admittedly an unbearable drunkard and a drifter—already this long before the First World War, before Švejk was written,” (Wagenbach).

It would be wonderful to imagine what these two writers could talk about. Kafka knew the Czech language and literature well, he regularly read Národní listy (where Hašek’s stories were published). They were both fascinated with Galicia, although Kafka more with the Hasidim and the Yiddish culture, and Hašek more with the Ruthenians. Such interests were common among the Prague writers, usually originating from bourgeois and petit bourgeois circles. Slovak and Ruthenian highlanders and Hasidim, unspoiled by industrial civilization, living in their own world with rules and rhythm dictated by ancient beliefs and by the seasons, in the first decades of the 20th century became protagonists of the works by the greatest Czech writers, including Karel Čapek, Vladislav Vančura (noticed early by Kafka) or Ivan Olbracht. The political aspect was also important—the Czechs felt hemmed in by the Germans and they saw their chance for survival in the unification of all non-German peoples of Central and Eastern Europe. Such visions were held both by traditionalist nationalists (Karel Kramář), and liberal democrats (Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk). Hašek hated domestic politicians and mocked them mercilessly, but he too—as his later life shows—allowed himself to be carried away by the Czechoslovakian (legionary) and later Bolshevik “mission in the East.”But did he really know Kafka? Theoretically it is possible, but in practice highly improbable.

Not only because Wagenbach went much too far, attributing connections with Czech anarchists to Kafka. As long as Klub Mladých existed (1905–1910), its members were under police surveillance; if the writer were “blacklisted,” he could not have performed his obligatory unpaid service to the courts (1906), start working in the insurance company Assicurazioni Generali (1907) and in the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute (1908), he could not have been made a civil servant (1910) and a partner in an asbestos factory (1911) or travel abroad during the war (1915, 1916, 1917). Every time he received a clean bill of health from the police (nota bene, signed by the same commissioner who in October 1910 disbanded Klub Mladých at the behest of the Office of the Governor). The Austrian bureaucracy really did work.

But neither did Hašek associate with the anarchists any longer in that period. In 1907 he met Jarmila Mayerová and tried to settle down at the request of the parents of his future wife. Since that time right up to the war the only manifestation of his “political activity” was the Party of Moderate Progress within the Bounds of the Law founded in 1911. Hašek invented it at the request of a friend in order to draw clients to the tavern “U Zlatého litru” (in that period election rallies were held in gastronomic outfits).

In his lifetime Kafka published just a handful of short stories, but he spent most of his free time in the literary community. (It was in this circle that he met his great love Milena Jesenská.) In contrast, Hašek was not regarded as a writer, although he published several hundred short stories in newspapers and magazines and lived on the proceeds from that. We will not find any of his works in any of several German language anthologies of new Czech prose prepared by Kafka’s friends. Moreover, Hašek stayed back from the literary community; his only friend who was also a recognized writer was his younger childhood friend František Langer. So the two writers, Kafka and Hašek, could have heard about each other—after all the future author of Švejk was an exceptionally picturesque figure—but there was simply no place where they could have met. As Bohumil Hrabal put it, they lived in two different words—Hašek in taverns, and Kafka in cafes.

If Kafka knew Hašek, Max Brod would probably have known him too. In fact, he most certainly did not, although he helped in launching him on the literary scene. Just a few weeks after the first volume of Švejk was published, Brod wrote an enthusiastic review for the daily Prager Zeitung, thus bringing Hašek to the attention of German and American publishers. In the late 1921 Hašek received a proposal for a German edition and an advance of $100 for a future American edition. These first successes were met with indifference by the local literary community and critics, for which a few years later, after the international success of the novel (to this day translated into 58 languages), Brod criticized the writer’s fellow countrymen: “I not only was the author of the stage adaptation of Švejk, but also discovered him for the world, for Germany. As early as 1923 [a mistake: in fact it was in the autumn of 1921—AK] I was the first person to treat Hašek seriously, in an often reprinted essay I appreciated the meaning of his brilliant irony and the perverse message [of his work] for world litera- ture and I put him—to everyone’s amazement—in the same rank with Cervantes and Rabelais.”

Brod recalled that before his death (January 3, 1923) Hašek read his essay and “for the first time he felt truly appreciated.” It could have been so—being a talented author of short stories, throughout his life he dreamt about writing a great novel. His friend Julius Firt (by the way, later deputy director of the Czechoslovakian section of Radio Free Europe) recalled that in the student times Hašek was stealing socks from his roommate (and did not pay the rent), and when his friend complained to the landlady, he threatened: “I will get my revenge, you will see. I will write a book and the stupidest and most despicable guy will be called Bretschneider!”

The brilliant formula which Hašek was seeking all his life turned out to be a novel-anecdote. “It is enough to compare The Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk with Tolstoy’s War and Peace to see what the difference is,” as the eminent essayist Josef Kroutvor once explained to me at a coffee table. “In Tolstoy’s novel events are subordinated to illustrating a historiographical thesis, it is the thesis which gives them meaning. In contrast, Hašek’s novel is in fact a comic book, a sequence of trivial episodes, small events, which also make up a picture of the era, but it does not mean that they reveal its meaning. On the contrary, they show that history in reality does not make the slightest sense. In any case, not to an inhabitant of Central Europe.”

As we know, the beginning of the book was the short story “Good Soldier Švejk” from 1911. One day Hašek asked his wife: “Do you know where I put this piece of paper on which I started to write yesterday evening? I dozed off when writing. And this was some exceptionally good idea. Something simply brilliant. And I fell asleep.”

The slip of paper fortunately was found in the coal bucket. But there were just a few words on it: “A moron in the army.” Hašek made a sour face, scratched his head, and in a rare fit of creative torture he dictated the short story to his wife. But he was not satisfied with the effect. “That’s not it. You know, I had a vision of something really new, unusual. And I missed it.”

Only a few years later, in the Galician trenches, during the “war of industrial plants,” where “trenches are really factories producing (…) genuine, ultimate death,”(as John Reed wrote) the vision came back. “And it kept me alive through all these years,” he recounted to his wife. “You know, at the front, in Russia, everywhere. Things started to mill around in me as soon as the war broke out. I felt that something was being born.”

Jarmila was one of the first readers of the book and immediately discovered its secret. “I realized that he paid for his joke with suffering, that he paid for his Švejk with eight years of his life—and that not much of it remained to him.”

Their marriage broke up just a year after the wedding. On his return from Russia Hašek pretended before his son that he was “Mr. Editor”—the boy was convinced that his father had died. Only when the first volume of Švejk was published, he could not hold it inside him anymore and confessed the truth to Richard. “He told him that he was his father and that he wrote Švejk for him,” Jarmila recalled. “After that for three days he was running around with Ricky in the mountains, in the woods. He was so happy that he had a son.”

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, former deputy editor-in-chief of Newsweek Polska and chief editor of the Op-ed section of Gazeta Wyborcza. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel or Bohumil Hrabal. He won Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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