Wednesday, 3 November 2010

On the trail of the Good Soldier Švejk

In 1911, 28-year-old Jaroslav Hašek began work on a new short story. He'd already written hundreds of them since his first was published at the age of only 16. But this one (penned shortly after his marriage when he was living here in Vršovice) would make his name - and a moderate fortune.  It was entitled 'The Good Soldier Švejk', and in time it was to grow into a much greater work of 700 pages,  based on Hašek's own experiences in the First World War.

Still considered one of the world's greatest satirical novels, this Rabelaisian rambler of a tale concerns the thoughts and opinions of the 'patent idiot' Švejk, who remains blithely untouchable by authority as the war machine gathers pace. Today it is admired all over the world. Joseph Heller said that he would never had written Catch-22 had it not been for The Good Soldier Švejk, and in lines like these you can see the germ of Heller's work: 'Sergeant major,' Švejk said with dignity, 'allow me to inform you that even with the best will in the world I cannot carry out your order to remove myself from this room or altogether from the whole camp, as I am subject to higher orders.'

We know that Hašek lived on what is now Moskevská Street at number 363, in a building whose ground floor is now occupied by the Stella Café and Restaurant.  The barmaids knew the book, but were not aware that they were working where Hašek dreamt up his hero. The absence of any kind of memorial suggests that the council aren't aware either. If I were Švejk, I would be marching in to the town hall this instant to demand whyever not! But of course, I'd be delighted that they'd had the good sense to install a pub.

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