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, 12 June 2010

Švejk in Királyhida

Vodička
Jaroslav Hašek dedicates almost three full chapters to Švejk's stay in Bruck an der Leitha and Királyhida, in fact one eight of the novel was set here. The author spent a month by the Leitha himself; or more precisely; in the exercise grounds of Brucker Lager. He mentions many places in the two towns: the camp, the Konservenfabrik (Meat canning factory), Schloss Prugg, the Zuckerfabrik, a photo pavilion and many other places inside the Lager. But more surprising is the mention of places that either seem to be pure inventions or more likely fragments of muddled-up facts. The attentive reader of  Švejk will in Book One and the start of Book Two have noticed Hašek's accurate, nearly scientific use of facts when creating the backdrop to his novel. There are very few, if any errors in the chapters set in Bohemia and I was expecting this exactness to be the case also in the rest of the novel, including the chapters set in Bruck and Királyhida.

Whilst discovering that many of the larger and well known institutions in the the twin towns on the Leitha are accurately described, I was surprised to find that not even one of the coffe houses, pubs and brothels he mentions could  be located with certainty. This statement is based on conversations with Friedrich Petzneck, documents by Wolfgang Gruber and not least a thorough study done by Klara Köttner-Benigni and Konrad Biricz in 1983. Hašek’s descriptions may fit with actual places, but the names don't (or vice-versa).. The street where the famous episode with Gyula Kákonyi happened, Soproni utca, actually existed but nobody lived there, it went right through the camp. Kákonyi had already appeared in  "The Good Soldier Švejk in captivity" (1917) but then he lived  in Poszony utca, another non-existent entity. This supports the assumption that "facts" from Bruck have to be taken with a pinch of salt. In Švejk, the ill-tempered sapper Vodička mentions a fight with Hungarians in a village called Pausdorf. This is place nowhere to be found, the author presumably meant Parndorf.

How could it be that the until now so accurate author suddenly became muddled? Firstly, he  was forced to risk his life for an authority he despised and it's understandable that the hated Bruck. He probably couldn't care less about sticking to reality. This is underlined by the fact that he grossly exaggerated the seamier sides of Bruck. There were at the time five official brothels in the twin towns, and surely some in-official ones, but Hašek described the twin towns as "one giant brothel". The description he gives of the Meat Canning factory is also blown-up. In fact it was a fairly descent establishment, although the standards might have dropped after the war  broke out. The stench he described was probably from a slaughtering yard behind the plant.

A second factor to consider is possible translation errors. In the novel, names of pubs and brothels have been translated to Czech from German or Hungarian by the author himself. Hašek's German was apparently very good but not perfect, his Hungarian much more limited. An example is "U bilé růže" (At the White Rose) where Hašek's description corresponds to the cafe-cum-brothel Zum Weissen Rössel. On the first floor there was indeed a Mannschaftspuff (brothel for the lower ranks) so it all fits except the name. My assumption is that the author simply mistranslated Rössel as rose, whereas in fact it should be horse. Today the building houses a innocuous Pennymarkt.

A study by Antonín Měšťan from the Hašek-conference in Bamberg in 1983 reveals these limitations in Hašek’s language and Jan Berwid-Buquoy also makes notes on similar translation difficulties. In the chapter Hašek in Deutschland from his book, he found that hardly any of the names Hašek uses in his stories from Bavaria in 1904 are correct (but still recognisable). The reason for this is logical. Hašek probably didn't see all these names in writing. Anyone who has been to rural Bavaria will understand that even a genius like Hašek would struggle with the local dialect, and I can assure readers that he would have had similar problems in Bruck! Of further further interest: Pytlík and Měšťan' reveal that Hašek didn't only rely on his memory; he used War Calendars, Otto's Encyclopedia and maps when he wrote his masterpiece. But in the case of Bruck and der Leitha and Királyhida he doesn't seem to have used  either, and even the bets of brains may miss a few details when trying to recall them from the top of his head six years later.

One day I was given a private tour of Brucker Lager by Wolfgang Gruber and camp commander Truppenübungsplatzkommandant Oberst Reinhold. It was very interesting although very few of the buildings from 1915 exist any more. The wooden barracks in Neuer Lager where Hašek stayed, were demolished shortly after the war. The Photo Pavilion is also history, and so is the Hauptwache where Švejk and Vodička would have spent time in the arrest. The oldest existing building is the Offizierscasino, which is mentioned explicitly in Švejk. The rifle range is also old, and still active. I have not been in a military camp since 1981, and life there seemed very relaxed. There can be no comparison between the officers of the current Austrian Bundesheer and the types that Hašek described.

Brucker Lager, Mannschaftsbaracke.
Hašek obviously grossly exaggerated the stupidity of the officer class in the k.u.k army, but he touches on an important fact that historians also observed (John Kenneth Galbraith was one of them). All sides in WW1 suffered from widespread incompetence in their higher military ranks. Those leaders ordered millions to march straight against the enemy's trenches, without ever getting out of  the stalemate. There are only few examples of good commanders: Mackensen, Brusilov, Foch to name a few. Hašek directly touches the core of this problem, despite his exaggerations. Many officers became officers because of their family ties and connections rather than their ability. So the Kraus von Zillerguts are by no means picked from thin air, despite the caricatures and exaggerations in Švejk.

In a previous letter I have mentioned two film versions of Švejk, with Rudolf Hrušinský and Heinz Rühmann as Švejk respectively. I have already raised my misgivings about both films for different reasons. The third and latest attempt on a movie was done by ÖRF (Austrian Broadcasting) in 1972 and 1976. It was an ambitious 13 part TV-series with Fritz Muliar as Švejk. Interestingly Muliar also had a role in the Rühmann film, but a minor one. The TV-series were  partly shot at Bruck Station and I got hold of some photos from the event. I have not viewed the series myself so instead I will let Hans-Peter Laqueur place his verdict:
Part 1-6 is o.k. Except for the end of part 6, when Švejk arrives at the front and gets involved in a battle it is very close to the book. The parts omitted (inevitable when making 6 hours of film out of the whole book) are sometimes disputable, but this first serial probably still is the best film production of the book available.

Part 7-13, produced a few years later, is not so clear. Parts 7-9 have a plot based on some other stories by Hašek as well as on the "Ur-Schwejk" stories of 1911, and filled up with Švejk's anecdotes not used in the original serial. Unmotivated re-appearances of Otto Katz (who takes the part of his predecessor Augustinus Kleinschrodt) and of Bretschneider (in spite of the fact that he had been eaten up by the dogs he had bought from Švejk)!

Part 9 ends with Svejk being taken prisoner by the Russians while trying to "conquer" a cow (Ur-Schwejk again?). Parts 10-12 are about Schwejks osudy as POW, as far as I know not based on anything by Hašek, they are quite nice, Švejk, though hardly telling any anecdotes, is by far more himself, than in the first three parts of the second series. - The last part, Revolution, Bugulma, return to Prague again is rather disappointing, motives taken from the Bugulma-Stories and a "Happy End" in Prague: Oberst Schröder (!?!) welcoming the returning soldiers and finally a meeting at the Kelch at six o'clock after the war.

To summarize: I'd have been at least as happy with only the first two rather than all four DVDs.

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