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.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Anabasis and archives

The word anabasis hails from Greek historian, general, and writer Xenophon. It is the title of seven heavy volumes where he describes the arduous route back to Athens after a military expedition to Persia. Xenophon is also said to be the first historian to write a report form a battlefield. Obviously Jaroslav Hašek must have read Xenophon or at least been familiar with his work. Through his famous chapter, Švejkova budějovická anabase, Hašek and other former legionnaires immortalized the word anabase for Czech readers. If you ask an American, Englishman or Scandinavian what the word means, you would get a blank stare. If you ask a Czech, or for that sake anyone in the neighbouring countries he would probably mention Švejk and not Xenophon. Czech poet and legionnaire Rudolf Medek (who at  times was a friend of Hašek) even wrote a work called "Anabase" (1927), the ultimate homage to the Czechoslovak Legions. Tomáš Masaryk also briefly mentions it in his book "The word revolution".

Hašek was a member of that organisation from 1916 onwards but quit in April 1918 after it was decided that they were to be transferred to the Western Front and fight under French command. British professor of literature, Robert Pynsent, has stated that Hašek's chapter in Švejk mocks  the Legion's wanderings in Siberia. Similar speculation is equally categorically voiced by translator of Švejk Zenny Sadlon and Polish writer Antoni Kroh. The theory seems highly speculative, and none of the three gentlemen quote any sources. There is nothing in the text of Švejk to support the claims; the aim  there is firmly the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Medek's work was published after Hašek's death so he has definitely not targeted him directly*). Importantly: Hašek already used the term in the short-story "Dopisy z fronty" (25 September 1916), and at the time he was definitely not mocking the Legions. All of the above three fail to mention this highly relevant fact. Hašek may have had good reasons to poke fun at his former comrades but that doesn't prove that he did it. Some legionnaires might have felt offended, but again that doesn't prove that he intended  it as a slur. The background for his use of the term "anabase" is probably a straight-forward reflection of Hašek's genuine interest in ancient history. References to ancient Rome and Greece are found all over the novel. I also doubt very much if Hašek can be quoted, saying that he aim this very brief mention of Xenofon at the legions. If such a quote existed, the post-1948 communist Haškologs would surely have used it for what it was worth.

*) NB! In a letter in 2011 Robert Pynsent correctly pointed out that Medek's work was NOT the first that used the term "anabase"; several writers had used it as early as 1921. Antonín Měšťan in his excellent REALIEN UND PSEUDOREALIEN IN HAŠEKS "ŠVEJK", writes that Hašek presumably used the term to ridicule journalist's use of the word. It remains to browse the Czech press from the immediate aftermath of WW1 to find any references to it. Still Hašek used the term already 18 months before the legions started their Siberian anabasis.

After settling in at reasonable Pension U Kloudů in central Písek for a week, my hands were free  and my back-pack firmly stowed away. The pension had fast wireless Internet, essential to a traveller who takes dozens of pictures every day and needs to upload them. I now had a whole day off without having to trace anyone in the whole world. Instead I went to the Státní okresní archiv (the regional state archives) to investigate a few of the facts Hašek employed in his novel. The staff were sceptical in the beginning, and I had to go back for my passport before they even considered letting me in. I guess they were leftovers from times where rules were rules and no nonsense was tolerated. When I returned with my passport, and had signed the  necessary papers, it was pure goodwill and helpfulness. I soon established where the Bezirksgendarmeriekommando  was, and also had a look at the police records from 1914-18.

Hašek mentions a rytmístr König in Švejk. He is probably pure fiction or a different person. According to the records Theodor Rotter was in charge in Písek during the war. He is mentioned in Švejk on several occasions, was an expert on breeding police dogs, and also an acquaintance of the author. They had met when Hašek was editor of "Animal World". The records were great reading, they would have been perfect background material for Hašek. Here are instructions on how to deal with drunkards, pacifists, anarchists, gypsies etc., all in the pompous official language that Hašek ridiculed. The only one piece missing was the village idiot Pepík Vyskoč  (Joey Jump).


  1. Well done, excellent and, I guess, rather hard hard hard work. Only beer can make it better.