He experienced the horrors of two wars and during this time he also covered an immense geographical area. The trip described in this blog is an attempt to retrace his steps from Prague across the Eurasian continent to beyond Lake Baikal in Siberia. The first part of the trip will follow the precisely described route of Josef Švejk, Hašek's inspired literary creation. I left home on April 30 2010 and was back on October 29.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

České Budějovice

České Budějovice
According to my own estimates, the city of České Budějovice is the place which is mentioned most frequently in Švejk. Although our hero spent only three days here and never left the arrest, his prison-cell companion Marek recounts a lot from his time here. The one-year volunteer Marek is not just a random character in the novel, he is by and large a mouthpiece for the author himself and most of the details revealed by Marek  are autobiographical. This includes the story about Animal World, a magazine which Hašek edited in 1910.  He was sacked after it was revealed that he had invented new animals, like the sulphur-bellied whale! This hilarious story is left out of Paul Selver's English translation of Švejk from 1930 and also from Odd Bang-Hansen's Norwegian translation from 1958. Clearly not all translators of Švejk can be classed as haškologs...
Mariánská kasárna, now derelict and up for sale

The episode about using the Krankenbuch to escape from the hospital for entertainment in town may also be authentic. The author spent nearly three months in the city, as Einjährigfreiwilliger (one-year volunteer), a grade offered to recruits with higher education. Quite a few "experts" have from this concluded that Hašek voluntarily signed up for the Austro-Hungarian Army, then scratched their heads and pronounced it an enigma.  This "fact" is propagated on many web-pages, including Wikipedia. It is of course rubbish, he was simply drafted.

He arrived at the Mariánská kasárna on 17 February 1915 to join the Ersatzbataillon of the 91st infantry regiment. Here he enlisted in the reserve officer school (often called one-year volunteer school). He was however soon expelled for some disciplinary reason. He spent some time in hospital due to rheumatism and hardly took part in military training. The Ersatzbataillon  was transferred to Királyhida 1 June the same year. This was part of measures taken by the authorities in the spring of 1915 to move Czech replacement units away from their recruitment area.

My own arrival in the Southern Czech capital  was on a wet and miserable morning. My Vietnamese umbrella blew to pieces so I had to buy yet another on  from yet another Vietnamese. By now a large part of my wardrobe hailed from Vietnamese shops; socks, trousers, rucksack (ironically in American Army colours), and of course, Kč 30 umbrellas. I holed up in a tiny but practical place in Pechárenská ulice and set off for Tábor to pick up the books I'd left behind two weeks ago. It poured down all day so I didn't miss a thing.

The next day was spent in the merry company of Jan Veselý, a local Švejkolog and friend of Richard Hašek. We had enjoyed a decent number of Budvars and even visited the Jihočeské muzeum, the regional museum of South Bohemia. Then we had another few beers and it struck me that two people who didn't know each other at all had spent 11 hours drinking and talking, and time had flown.  I don't remember how I got home, the autopilot must have taken control. I had agreed to meet Mr Veselý at the local beer festival the next day, but an audibly reduced Honza had other ideas (Honza is the Czech nickname for Jan, comparable to German Hans v Johannes). Instead we agreed to meet at a pub near his home, and his wife had prepared vepřo-knedlo-zelo for the guest, in their flat in Sídliště Máj. Their son, the punker Honza Jr was also there, appropriately asleep in the kitchen. We got on well and I could even listen to Black Sabbath whilst stuffing myself with the Czech staple dish. There was yet another trip to a pub, and my departure was delayed time after  time due  to the recurring requests for  "one more for the road". This time I managed to keep my head above the foam of the Kozels, painfully aware that my departure was at 7:12 the next morning.
Earlier in the day I had traced some of the places associated with Hašek; a few pubs, a military hospital, the city square and a brothel. It must be added that these buildings mostly have other functions today.

Švejk and Marek in the prison-cell in Mariánské kasárny
The square is indirectly mentioned in Švejk, through a story by Marek on how he by mistake knocked the cap off the head of an artillery officer (also autobiographical). The square is one of  the largest in the Czech Republic.  It is impressive; the huge Samson fountain has prime position in the middle, and the arcaded houses make a pretty ensemble. The radnice (Town Hall) also catches the eye. In the surrounding old town there are several quaint streets, and the Malše river embankment makes a pleasant walk.

The square is now called Náměští Přemysla Otakara II, and has, typically for Czech squares, changed names several times according to from which direction the political wind has blown. It even had the inglorious name Adolf Hitler Platz for nearly seven dark years. The city had until that time been 44% German and 56% Czech.speaking. After the 1938 Munich-agreement, the Czech population was expelled and the Jewish population persecuted and ultimately liquidated. In 1945 the German population was expelled in the so-called odsun (transfer), a wave of ethnic cleansing that removed almost all of the three million Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia. The odsun was violent, particularly the so-called divoký odsun, "the wild transfer", which took place during  the first few months after the end of the war. An estimated 20,000 lost their lives during the "transfer". In German the word Vertreibung (expulsion) is used, a far more appropriate word than the new-speak  odsun, which oozes guilt, denial and cover-up. The expulsion of the Sudeten-Germans is contentious even today, but is gradually becoming less important. History can't be redone, and claims for compensation from the exiled Germans is effectively countered by: "What if we claim compensation for the damages caused by Nazi-Germany to Czechoslovakia?" Politicians both in Germany , the Czech Republic and Austria, have gone to great lengths to heal the wounds, although some have used the issue for their own vote-chasing gain: notably Jörg Haider and Miloš Zeman. The South Bohemian museum now dedicates a large section to the regions German past, a sign that times are changing.

Honza Jr, Honza Sr, Martin
To my surprise and delight both generations of Honza Veselý and his other son, Martin were at the station to see me off at 7! They had a spare rail-voucher that they tried to transfer to me, but to no avail. I was now heading for České Velenice, a town on the border with Austria  which Švejk must have passed in his Arrestantenwagon, in the company of one-year volunteer Marek. The escort, a tormented corporal,  was the target of Marek's and Švejk's incessant ridicule. On a bench in the carriage the gluttonous Field Chaplain, feldkurát Lacina,  was snoring, belching and farting like Rabelais' Garagantua and even in his dreams shouted: More gravy! The situation was somewhat different this beautiful sunny morning in June 2010.

I crossed the border on foot, having had my last Budvar and walked to Gmünd where I took the train to Vienna and then on to Bruck an der Leitha. The train was a shock, it was so comfortable, smooth and fast that I realised that I had forgotten how comfortable rail travel can be. Not that Czech trains are bad; they are reliable but slow and the tracks are mostly from the era of His Highness Franz Joseph I.

This was the end of 32 days in the Czech Republic, the longest I'd ever spent in a country in which I for some strange reason feel totally at home. I have no family ties or any logical reason to feel at home there, so I can't explain it.  Even after my first visit in 1988 I knew that I'd come back and after a few more visits I realised this was my adopted country, and I look forward to be back in October. Now onto Austria, another country I like visiting, although to a lesser degree.

1 comment:

  1. Feeling at home? You can't explain it? The beer makes even me feel at home there, the very place I ran away from ... You're doing the right thing, with the right frequency and duration. It's another thing to stay for good. :-)