Get serious: following Svejk through Slovakia
By David McLean
Švejk is the creation of Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek, who began the novel The Good Soldier Švejk in 1921 after one of the madder, more turbulent lives of anyone of his generation. He had been an active anarchist, a soldier in the Austrian army, a prisoner of war in Russia, a supporter of the Russian monarchy, a genuine Soviet Bolshevik and a bigamist to boot. Through it all he remained a prankster and prolific writer of stories. His career as a professional vagabond-troublemaker culminated in his classic novel about Švejk, which was unfinished when Hašek died in January 1923.
As for Švejk himself, he’s a shrewd, beer-drinking resident of Prague who makes a living passing off mutts as thoroughbreds and manages to survive the bureaucratic foibles of the Austro-Hungarian Empire through a cheerful passive resistance to all authority. He plays the idiot when required, smiles through each humiliation and always manages to come out on top.
Hašek wrote the book to satirize military life under the monarchy but Švejk’s methods of coping were tailor-made for life under the Communist regime that came later. Indeed, Švejk has become an everyman hero for anyone facing the nightmare that is officialdom. Joseph Heller cited Švejk as a strong influence on his novel Catch-22 but, as in Heller’s novel, the book is not all fun and games. It is in Slovakia that Švejk gets his first glimpse of the realties of war.
I played literary pilgrim and followed the route Švejk travelled in Slovakia, not so much to find the good soldier himself but to see the landscape of the novel as it appears today and find what remains of the world of Hašek and Švejk.
In the winter of 1914-1915, a Russian offensive carried the war into what is now the territory of Slovakia but what was then still part of Hungary. Among the Austrian soldiers sent to the Eastern Front was Jaroslav Hašek. Just as Hašek did, Švejk and company head for the front via Humenné, making a prolonged stop at the local train station, the setting for one of the book’s most memorable scenes, commemorated by the statue.
In the scene, Captain Lukáš asks Švejk to fetch a bottle of forbidden cognac from around the back of the station. Lieutenant Dub, Švejk’s nemesis, follows in the hope of catching him up to no good. And he does, or so he thinks. When Dub asks, Švejk tells him that he was thirsty and filled an old cognac bottle at the water pump and that iron has given the water its brown colour. Dub, anticipating victory, orders Švejk to drink the entire bottle, not expecting our hero to manage the task. Švejk does, though, and Dub is stumped. They go to the pump together and Dub has a taste, gagging on the filthy water. Švejk then reports back to Lukaš: “Humbly report, sir, in five, at the most ten minutes, I shall be completely gone...” before proceeding to sleep off the cognac.
Of course, there’s more to Humenné than a statue. It’s a pleasant town with an airy pedestrian zone and a beautiful Renaissance manor house that contains a fine art and history exhibit. Best of all, there is a small skanzen, or open-air folk museum, that concentrates on the folk architecture of the Upper Zemplin district.
It’s after the high jinks of Humenné that Švejk suddenly turns serious. As the troops head north up the Laborec valley towards Medzilaborce, the evidence of recent fighting silences Švejk and the other gung-ho Germans:
“On the way to Medzilaborce the whole valley was furrowed and the earth piled up as though armies of giant moles had been working there. The road behind the river was dug up and destroyed, and alongside it could be seen the vast trampled expanses left by the armies which had rolled over them.”
Rain has uncovered the bodies of dead Austrian soldiers, the trees are broken and the villages of Brestov and Radvaň have been burned. It’s a surprisingly sombre moment in an otherwise outrageous book. Hašek tells us with grim humour that “The train went slowly over the freshly-built embankments so that the whole battalion could take in and thoroughly savour the delights of war.”
As I head up the valley I’m struck by the contrast. The ravaged landscape of Hašek’s novel is now a broad, pleasant valley waking up from a harsh winter. Ridges of low, forested hills run the length on both sides and quiet villages and Roma settlements appear frequently along the road. In Volica, a stork’s nest atop a freestanding post awaits the return of its habitants from their wintering grounds in southern Africa.
My map tells me that the village of Čabiny was utterly destroyed during the Russian offensive. It’s here that Hašek describes the boot of an Austrian infantryman, “with a piece of shinbone,” hanging from a tree. The map also mentions a large World War I military cemetery. I walk among old gravestones outside the local church, but find nothing military about them. I ask an elderly woman about the cemetery and she points at a span of open grass between two collections of gravestones. “It used to be there,” she says, “but no one is old enough to remember that time, so they removed it so they could use the ground again. You can’t blame them.”
It’s a disappointment, but only a small one, because a stroll through Čabiny on an early spring day is in no way an unpleasant way to pass time. Like many villages here in the East, it’s quiet and feels remote, cut off from distant Bratislava and the booming economic activity of the so-called “Tatra Tiger”.
I continue north and minutes later, on the outskirts of Krosny Brod, an old stone tower appears on the right. “O, beloved pilgrims, stop and rest your weary selves upon this holy place. Meditate a while!” reads the information board. I take the advice and wander among the ruin of a Basilian monastery that Saints Cyril and Method, the Salonian brothers who brought Christianity to the Slavs, supposedly founded in the late ninth century.
My last stop on the Švejk trail is Medzilaborce. Here Švejk and company witness Austrian authorities expropriate three pigs from a Ruthenian peasant before pounding him with rifle butts. It’s a funny, brutal moment that typifies the novel’s portrayal of the tragicomedy of war.
Today, Medzilaborce is known for its primary tourist attraction, the Andy Warhol Museum, which pulls in some 10,000 visitors a year. I can’t help thinking that the modern prankster Warhol and the old anarchist Hašek may have had a few things in common. Warhol’s parents were Ruthenians from Miková, a village in the next valley, West of Medzilaborce. Like many Ruthenians, they left early in the 20th century and travelled to Pittsburgh. Andy actually never set foot in Medzilaborce but he’s all over it now, from a collection of original artworks in the museum, the Penzion Andy across the square and the life-sized statue-fountain of Warhol outside the museum.
From here, Švejk and the gang head East through the Lupkowsky Pass into Poland before continuing on to further adventures in Sanok and beyond. My pilgrimage complete, I head West, my dog-eared copy of the novel still in hand, chuckling out loud all the way back to Prešov.
The everyman hero of the classic satire The Good Soldier Švejk hits high jinks in Humenné and the realities of war in the Laborec valley.
These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2005, which you can obtain from our online shop.
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