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, 1 May 2010

Stinking fish, opera and a sunk cruiser

 Písek, May 26th 2010. After having announced my intention to "blog" this journey I've been abjectly slow to follow up. Blog-wise I'm just  about setting sails from Oslo, attempting to catch up.

It was 30 April 2010, the 127th birthday of Jaroslav Hašek. This day marked the end of nearly two years of incessant reading, Goggling, e-mailing, and web-authoring. The eagerly anticipated journey had started, and the aim was the Copenhagen ferry at Vippetangen Pier in Oslo. After saying goodbye to my colleagues at work I picked up my passport at Privjet with a Kazakh visa neatly attached, and headed to Venterommet Pub  where I had the pleasure of the company of two good friends who honoured me by reciting Baudelaire. It was not done in fluent French but rather in wonderfully archaic Danish, a translation fittingly issued 3 days after the end of WW1. My friends were of the opinion that there exist literature in the world beside Švejk, and by all means; I appreciate being reminded of it from time to time.

As the ferry left Vippetangen I was wondering how I could possibly link the scene in front of me to anything remotely associated with Hašek. Norway and the Netherlands are the only countries in Europe (who were independent in 1914) who are not directly mentioned in Švejk. Not a single Norwegian is referred to; the Netherlands at least has the distinction of being represented by pioneer cryptographer Auguste Kerckhoffs and his predecessor Joost van Gronsveld. Only by a stretch of imagination is there a vague reference to Norway; but it is an intensely pungent one: Stockfisch is the German word for one of our specialities: dried cod. It is mentioned once in Švejk, by putzfleck Batzer (officer servant) who in his Bavarian dialect from Kašperské Hory (until 1945 Bergreichenstein) remarks: Stink awer ď Kerl wie a’Stockfisch, muß ď'Hosen voll ha’n. This was after he discovered that Cadet Biegler had crapped his trousers full during his awful dream on the train to Budapest. Not the most delicate of stories, but then Švejk is not the most delicate of novels.

Other connections between Hašek and Norway are circumstantial and relate to events outside the authors control. In 1939 a young press attaché was employed by the British Embassy in Oslo. His name was Cecil Parrott and he was 30 years later to translate Švejk into English. His was the first unabridged translation, the previous one from 1930 was shortened and "sanitized". On 9 April 1940 German war ships steamed up the Oslo fjord, and Luftwaffe started bombing Norwegian targets. The invaders captured the capital the same morning and soon after that they captured Cecil Parrott. He was thrown into jail at Møllergata 19, soon to become a feared Gestapo prison. Fortunately Parrott was released a few days later and left for Sweden with his Norwegian wife and young son. There he spent the remaining war years running a Press Reading Agency. He was later to make a diplomatic career which eventually took him to Prague as ambassador. There will no doubt during the next six months appear comments in this blog on the quality of Parrott's translation (and that of others).

Across from the ferry, Oslo's striking new Opera House could be seen. It's splendour apart, this institution might well have provoked Hašek's ridicule, he might even have reused his term masturbanty falešné kultury if he had seen the list of celebrities invited for the opening gala performance on 12 April 2008. Amongst the luminaries were the presidents of Iceland, Finland and Germany and a number of royals, politicians and other more or less prominent figures. Further down the guest list was the name of a conferancier, Jasper Parrott, the son of the above mentioned diplomat and translator, and no doubt also a fan of Švejk.

An hour later the "Pearl of Scandinavia" sailed past the town of Drøbak and the now defunct fortress Oscarsborg. In the ice cold waters below lies the German war-ship "Blücher" and the remains of 830 Germans. In the early morning of 9 April 1940 the vessel headed up towards the Norwegian capital. She carried top military and administrative staff who were to take over the running of (to be) occupied Norway. Blücher was first hit by shells from the ancient heavy guns "Moses" and "Aron". The defenders were in such an unprepared state that they manned the artillery with kitchen staff. Damaged, the vessel was an easy target for torpedoes fired from Oscarsborg. Sinking Blücher was important; it gave the Norwegian government and the royal family time to escape the invaders and eventually reach England.

Who was the ship named after and what is the connecting with the "theme" of this journey? Gebhard von Blücher was a Prussian general who tipped the battle of Waterloo in the allies favour with his timely intervention. Wellington is in the Anglophone world celebrated as the victor at Waterloo. This is a somewhat skewed truth. Two thirds of the allied troops were Prussians and the English would probably have lost the battle without Blücher's intervention. Readers of Švejk will notice the connection with Waterloo immediately although Blücher's name is never mentioned. Pub landlord Palivec at U kalicha defended his rough language by referring to "Mot de Cambronne" from Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables", a part set at Waterloo. When asked by the English to surrender, Cambronne retorted: "Merde!".

The sea journey to Copenhagen was comfortable but little to write about. Hašek probably never sailed on open seas until late 1920, when he returned from Russia on the steamer Kypros. For this occasion Josef Lada made a drawing where Hašek is seen puking full throttle into the murky waves of the Baltic Sea.

Photos related to this blog entry can be found here...

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for employing the Hašekian style which makes this an interesting, educational, and enjoyable entry. History is made meaningful by particular, personal stories.