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.

Monday 17 May 2010

Books and beer

As mentioned in the previous letter, four Hungarians, led by László Polgár,  had arrived at Lipnice. They were on the way to vital events in Prague: a Book Fair and a Beer Festival. Books and beer is an excellent combination and no-one in the Czech Lands wound find this  particularly strange. In few other countries are literature and beer that closely connected. The Czech Republic  has  a huge quantity of hospody and fittingly it also has a large number of book-shops. It also boasts a great number of beer-drinking writers.
The book fair Svět Knihy takes places at the Vystaviště (Exhibition Grounds) in Holešovice in mid-May every year and attracts book-buyers, book-sellers, literary types and the general public from even beyond the borders of the republic. The immediate reason for our visit on 14 May was the launch of Karel Vaněk's continuation of the unfinished Švejk, with illustrations by cartoonist Petr Urban. He is known for his humorous-grotesque caricatures and is as such fit for the task. He has already illustrated Hašek's original Švejk. The continuation of Švejk has not been translated to English or any other major language and is generally regarded as inferior to Hašek's. NB! I have not read it myself.

The launch was hosted by the publishers X.Y.Z and the honorary guests were Petr Urban himself, and Radko Pytlík, generally regarded as the foremost living expert on Hašek. Pytlík even introduced three members of the audience: Richard Hašek as grand-son and Hašek-expert, László Polgár as distinguished Bohemist from Hungary and a stray dog from Northern Europe, recognized for his web-pages on Švejk. I felt very honoured by Pytlík's recognition, although he somewhat imprecisely announced that the web-pages also exist in French! I bought both of Urban's Švejks, and he signed them personally with a grotesque Švejk. The books  are far heavier than the Kralice Bible and the Gutenberg Bible put together and will not be travelling with me to Siberia!
There was never any doubt that the literary event would be rounded off by a visit to a hospoda and so it was. The direction was towards the classic U Houbaře, one of Radko Pytlík's favourite haunts, but Petr Urban was after the trials of the launch so overwhelmed with thirst,  that he guided the whole delegation into the nearest corner pub. Pilsner Urquell was consumed in quantities, and only Polgár went missing from time to time. He got so involved with books that he atypically forgot about beer and went to buy more literature. Petr Urban himself stuck to pivo. He is a giant of a man in his late forties, a former Czech sledding champion who twice took part in the Olympics, and with his hockey-style long and greasy hair, even resembles his own caricatures.
The next day, 15 May, Hans-Peter and I traced Švejk, chapter 7 and 8, from U Kalicha to Hradčany. Again we talked to landlord Pavel Töpfer who the night before had had a visit of a group of 80 Germans who insisted on paying separately, just to confirm the statement in his book! We walked the route where  Mrs Müllerová pushed Švejk in a wheelchair; to Střelecký ostrov. Then we followed him through Malá strana and onto Hradčany's Garrison Hospital where he withstood all the trials His Imperial Highness's servant Dr Grünstein subjected him to; needless to say with the greatest composure.
By now our legs were weary and after a Kozel at U černého vola we parted and I went on to further arrangements. At the former airfield of Letňany the annual Beer Festival was taking place. I was to meet László Polgár and Zsofia Hunyadi at Holešovice metro, and we were to go to Letňany, to, well… drink beer.

At the platform a surprise waited: Eero Balk. He is the Finnish translator of Švejk and a professional translator of Russian, Slovak, Ukrainian and Czech. He also has a special interest in the Sorb minority in East Germany, which language and culture are under threat.

I suddenly realised that I was surrounded by Finno-Ugrians. László then commented on the logic that we were all communicating in Czech, which is neither particularly Finno-Ugrian nor Germanic. After visiting the three beer tenths, and becoming even more Finno-Ugrian we continued to Žižkov where an unofficial photo session took place by the statue of Hašek at Prokopovo náměští. The evening was rounded off with a few equally unofficial Pilsners at U vystřeleného oka (At the shot-out eye).
The next day, on 16 May, Hans-Peter and I followed Švejk's trail from Hradčany to Karlín where he was to happily serve Feldkurat Otto Katz. Walking through the tourist masses in Malá strana and Staré město was stressful, but from Dlouhá třída onwards it was quiet and pleasant. Ferdinandová kasárna in Karlín, where Katz served, is now derelict, located just beyond the railway viaduct. We also had a beer in a pub right under the railway, a place where we as tourists felt rather unwelcome. I'm sure though that Švejk would have been understanding and explained the štamgasty that some tourists can't help being tourists.
In the evening we met Prague-based Norwegian journalist Terje Englund at Restaurace Bruska  in Dejvice. He is the author of two books: The Czechs in a Nutshell and Spionen som kom for sent (The spy who arrived late). The former is a guide for foreigners to Czech culture, in the ironic tone Czechs are familiar with. He told us that feedback from Czech readers was good but that they didn't like his comments about Czech food. Englund is a vegetarian! When I got my own meal his terse comment was: “That's disgusting!” The second book is about Czechoslovak espionage activities in Norway during the cold war.
The next day, 17 May, I didn't celebrate the Norwegian national holiday as would have been right and proper. Instead I said goodbye to Hans-Peter and then walked back to Florenc to take photos of some placed we'd missed the day before. I got a quite a few stares when I photographed the former pub U marianského obrazu which only can be described as ready for demolition. But by now Švejk was firmly in place at Otto Katz's flat in Karlín and was ready for new adventures.

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