A Bohemian's Tale

originally published February 2005


Visitors to the Czech Republic may catch occasional glimpses of a plump, cheery, cartoon character, dressed in an army uniform and seated contentedly on a stool with a beer in his hand. He is known as The Good Soldier Švejk, far more interested in finding a pub than going to war, and his modest, self-mocking demeanor has made him an unofficial Czech mascot. Švejk restaurants and pubs now pepper this city as well as the provincial backwaters, and the book of the same name, written by literary rogue Jaroslav Hašek, is a must read for anyone interested in gaining an understanding of the Bohemian spirit. One line from the book has gone down in local folklore: "Tidy yourself up! We might be Czechs, but we don't have to let the rest of the world know."

Although stories based on Švejk can be traced back to before the Great War, it was not until August 1921, when Hašek, his creator, took a train from Prague's Main Station to Svetla nad Sázavou, an hour and a half's ride southeast that the character was truly formed.

He had been led there by his great friend, the artist Jaroslav Panuška, on a whim of adventure and to catch a breath of fresh air away from the smog-ridden streets of Zizkov in the capital. Legend has it that it was a very drunk Hašek who stepped off that train and walked the rest of the journey uphill to the village of Lipnice in his slippers. He took to the wide-open spaces of the Vysocina (Highland) region with great gusto and immediately settled there to work on his script, to carouse and, ultimately, to die from a heart attack, brought on by his consumption, aged thirty-nine, on January 3, 1923.

He took a room above the still existing U Ceské Koruny (Czech Crown) tavern, going on to rent it for the next 18 months, and returning only briefly to the city on two or three further occasions. He brought his Russian mistress across the steppes to be with him, while he left his wife Jarmila and young son behind in Prague at no. 7 Jeronýmova Street - the address where he had first sat down to construct his ground-breaking novel The Good Soldier Švejk, which he had conceived from his own experience in the Czech Legion, stumbling around the First World War battlefields of central Europe, joining and abandoning different armies of different Empires, but all the while remaining stoically Bohemian, regardless of which nation he was being forced to fight for.

Charmed by Lipnice, then a community of 800 people, perched idyllically up on a hill with its 14th century castle slumped and crumbling above the gently winding Sázava River, Hašek entered merrily into village life. He enjoyed nothing more than treks through the surrounding farmland, woods and villages, or annoying the local women by dragging their menfolk to the pub, where he would stand to read completed sections of text to his audience, dictating new sections to a more sober writer. Sometimes he would simply play cards, albeit for sums of money way beyond his means. He drank copiously at the bar, chasing the locally produced beer, Lipnicée Lezák, with rum, slivovice and kontušovka; an aniseed based liquor, similar to absinthe. At the end of the evening, the wild writer had only a couple of flights of stairs to negotiate before bed.

Today his grave lies behind the same pub, and comparisons with the Czech and Slovak Republics joining the European Union - seen by many here as simply another tool of Empire - would surely bring a wry grin to the great man's big, round face, followed by a belly laugh if he could hear of the five Czech Communist deputies recently elected to the EU parliament.

The Good Soldier Švejk has been translated into 58 different languages and exact sales figures are unknown. There are fan clubs from Poland to New Zealand, and the communist Chinese Government adopted the book with open arms as testament to bourgeois imperialism and the suffering of the 'little man'. Millions of copies have been sold in Russia alone, and on the square of the small town of Humenné in eastern Slovakia stands a uniformed statue of Private Josef Švejk.

Švejk's story was finally set down on paper in Lipnice and it was from here that Hašek set off to Prague for the first print. The painter, Josef Lada, was unearthed and asked to design and embellish Hašek's lyrical manuscript with the paintbrush. He came up with the comic strip character familiar to anyone who knows of Švejk.

Hašek himself funded the first printing and this allowed him to run his own advertising campaign. An original poster still hangs on a wall of the Ceske Koruny, extravagantly stretching the truth with its claim to being sold in: 'France, England and America, as well as in the East!' A further white lie told of 100,000 copies already printed, but the strategy paid off, and by 1922 an edition was sold in Chicago, followed by a congratulatory dollar bill posted to Hašek in Lipnice by a Czech immigrant to the United States. This initial success also gave him the opportunity to pay off numerous bar tabs - with free copies of the book - and his fame, notoriety and wit were secured for posterity.

Three months before his death, he bought a house some fifty meters from his favorite pub and former home. The house is now a museum, with splendid views of the rolling Vysocina countryside. In the back garden his bench faces this view, and a bust of the author stands across the lane, under the shadow of the castle. The U Ceské Koruny Public House and Penzion has been recently renovated, and its extremely amiable proprietor Richard Hašek, the writer's grandson, welcomes guests as old friends. The walls of the pub are an exhibition of black and white photographs providing a fantastic, visual biography of his grandfather's life. Travelers from around the world may sleep in an upstairs apartment, which served as the author's bedroom 84 years ago.

Lipnice maintains the air of a village stuck contentedly in time. Children skip happily home from school, meadows, hills and pine forests lie beyond, the sun sets and great orange lamps light the cobbled streets. A pub door is opened and a roar of merriment flies out into the night setting the dogs to barking, and one imagines, the wives to worrying.

For those wishing to follow in Hašek's footsteps, trains leave almost every hour from Prague's Main Station (Hlavní Nádrazi) and it's a 120 km ride to Svetla nad Sázavou on the line to Brno, returning with similar regularity. From Svetla, the eight kilometer trip to Lipnice can be taken either by local bus, taxi, bicycle, or, like Hašek, on foot. If so, try and remember to wear footwear more sturdy than slippers, or you may never leave.