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.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Barking up the wrong tree

This blog entry is a travel letter, so dedicated haškologs may want to skip it. It is the story of how a "famous Norwegian švejkolog" got infamously stuck in the Pripyat marshes, swatting insects, and chasing shadows.

Being a geo-nerd

Sarny voksal
On a steaming hot July morning in 2010 I found my way to Київ-Пасажирський, the mother of all Ukrainian railway stations. Not only is it huge but also extremely ornate, no doubt a legacy of the Soviet Union and possibly even the tsar. My train was heading west, to an obscure town called Sarny in north western Ukraine, near the border with Belarus.

The reason for going there was that I had perceived that Jaroslav Hašek spent some time in Sarny in 1916. Radko Pytlik mentions the place, and Cecil Parrott also indicates some connection. Parrott's "The Bad Bohemian" even states that Hašek had been to a place called Berezno in Belarus, located nearby (the information was first published by Jaroslav Křížek in 1957). In Oslo, before I set off on the journey, I located the place. Then I discovered that I needed a visa to go to that (presumably) marshy hole by the river Horyn. I had backed off: common sense had prevailed and trumped my geo-nerdish fundamentalist inclinations. Former sovkhoz director Lukachenko and his loyal subjects in Berezno must have me excused.


Hotel Sluč
Sarny and its railway station at first sight appeared forlorn. A helpful gentleman directed me to Hotel Sluč, the only hotel in town. Located not far from the station, it was extremely cheap and likewise uninviting. Still the Russian speaking staff were quite welcoming, although their attention to documents and diligence in stamping them indicated that their souls were still lingering in the Soviet Union. My Norwegian passport caused a great deal of concern - such a document may not have been stamped too often this side of the river Pripyat. To call the room spartan may perhaps be an insult to the ancient heroes of the Peloponnese, and it was hot enough inside to be appreciated by any Greek, be it ancient or modern.

Chernobyl: "to the dead, the living and those not yet born"
The town itself appeared very small, but I was deceived by the location of the railway station. It is at the very end of urban area, and Sarny appears smaller than it is because it is so narrow. On the other hand it is very long. Still long, wide or narrow; the lasting impression was the drabness - there is not even a sign of a landmark - probably the result of destruction in WW2. The masses of Soviet style pre-fabricated buildings indicates post-war reconstruction. Another tragedy happened in 1986: the Chernobyl disaster hit this region particularly hard.

On the streets Russian was heard a lot more than in Lviv. Sarny had been part of the Russian Empire but was in the interwar period part of Poland. The Polish past is commemorated by a placard near the railway station and on a few occasions I was even asked if I was a Pole. Nearby there is also a plaque commemorating the victims of Chernobyl.

The elusive Regiment HQ

Approaching Polyany
As mentioned at the start of this letter I had chosen to ignore Berezno, the HQ of the First Czechoslovak Rifle Regiment at the time when Jaroslav Hašek was assigned to the unit. During the trip I came across an on-line version of Deník legionáře Josefa Holuba (The diary of legionnaire Josef Holub). I quickly browsed it, and the contents filled the heart of this geo-nerd with joy and enthusiasm. Berezno was NOT in Belarus, Cecil Parrott was barking up the wrong tree (no doubt he barked in a refined manner, befitting a former British diplomat). I triumphantly concluded that Berezno must be Berezne (names often change around here), and it  was located SOUTH of Sarny, within easy reach and without the need to cross any borders. I had always regarded Parrott solid on geography; his translation of Švejk has very few blips in this respect. But now Sir Cecil Parrott, the British diplomat and scholar, was lost in the Pripyat marshes and Jomar Hønsi; an unassuming, shy and shabbily dressed švejkolog of humble origins was on terra firma.

Kafe Neptun

Between Polyany and Berezne
In an upbeat mood I set off in the direction of Berezne. I took a maršrutka to Malynsk, walked 6 km to Polyany where I was suddenly overwhelmed by an incredible thirst. In Kafe Neptun I sat down, ordered a cold Lvivske pyvo, and couldn't care less about the swarm of flies that took interest in my person. No wonder they did, as I was dripping with sweat in the hot weather. At the table in front of me sat an old man in dirty green wellingtons. He stared at me so intensely that I became self-concious; checked that there was no drop under my nose, and no bird-shit in my hair, and no horse-dung on my sandals. In the end it was only curiosity. He asked where I was from, concluded that where I was from was very cold and then asked if we had картопля and капуста (potatoes and cabbage). I reassured him that we are very well off on both accounts. Then he told me about his family, they were eight people living in his house. He also asked me how old my father was and if he was healthy. Very well I said. Father is 88 and healthy and I was asked to pass on a greeting. He himself was only 78 and also healthy. Small encounters like this are amongst the most rewarding aspects of travelling, but unfortunately language barriers limit the possibilities.

Church near Berezne
The old man left and I decided on another beer. Unfortunately a truck-load of goods had just arrived, and the waitress prioritised counting melons and doing paperwork ahead of serving customers. I got mightily irritated and cursed the communist notions of customer service (or lack of it), which in this case was still apparent. I had visions before my eyes of grumpy employees of the "service sector" who demonstratively tended their nails in front of the customer, and doing so with the most unfriendly expression on their faces. This girl was not unfriendly though; it was just that it hadn't entered her head the customers come to Kafe Neptun in Polyany for other reasons than watching her counting melons. After she had got the bloody melons out of the way she even sat down for a chat, and presumably I told her in a friendly way that, yes: we don't have melons in our country but are self-sufficient in cabbage and potatoes.


A bus-stop on the road to Berezne
I continued onwards Berezne and it seemed to confirm that I was in the right place: there was a small lake and a small mansion, just as Josef Holub had said. Mission accomplished, I thought...

But: two years later I discovered that it was ME who had been barking up the wrong tree, not Cecil Parrott and Jaroslav Křížek! His Berezno in Belarus was indeed where the 1st Czechoslovak Rifle Regiment was located. To add to the confusion: they were also located at Berezna in 1917, but this was another place, near Zhitomir, and his was this place Holub wrote about! I admit I was totally off track, but I am not the only one. Haškologs in general are on thin ice; even the reliable Bibliografie Jaroslava Haška gets mixed up. The accounts given by Křížek, Pytlík and Parrott are suspiciously close to a description Adam Kříž gave of Hašek and the regiment's stay in Berezna in 1917, after the battle of Zborów. It seems to me that there were quite a few dogs around, and they were barking up awfully many trees (and  I was the last to join their ranks).

Later I discovered the details of Hašek's connection with Sarny. His regiment was stationed at Remczyca (15 km to the north) in May 1917, and this is the place where he appeared before a court of honour because of his infamous Czech Pickwick Klub. I was blissfully unaware of this connection and could easily have visited Remczyca (now Remchytsi). That is: if I had known about it! Amen!