As part of my ongoing agenda to expand my social media empire, I have taken to twitter as a means of finding out cool new stuff and sharing it, and also as a way to share some of my writings with a broader audience. As is clear from the twitter feed that is now on the right hand side of this blog, I go by the handle @poslusnehlasim.
Poslušně hlásím, translated as ‘I humbly report’ or ‘I obediently report’, is a catch phrase of novel character Josef Švejk, a creation of prolific Czech author Jaroslav Hašek (wiki) (1883-1923). Hašek led a fascinating but tragic – and tragically short – life. A classic bohemian bon-vivant rolling stone type, Hašek was an uncompromising individual who went from job to job and apartment to apartment, often crashing on other’s couches, sometimes living out on the streets. His writing focused on short, absurdist stories, lampooning authorities and traditions.
During the October Revolution and the civil war in Russia, Hašek was in Russia working for the Bolsheviks. He soon became disillusioned with the revolution and returned to Czechoslovakia, which had now become independent, although he had little sympathy for the bourgeois first Republic under Masaryk. Back in Czechoslovakia, Hašek turned his attention to a multi-volume novel: The Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk. (amazon)
Josef Švejk, is a retired soldier who makes his living catching and selling dogs. The novel starts just after Franz Ferdinand is slain in Sarajevo, when Austria-Hungary mobilizes its troops. In spite of his rheumatism, Švejk tries to enlist in the army. Hašek follows Švejk as he joins the armed forces, serves as a butler to officers, and travels to the Eastern Front. In his interaction with higher-ranking officers, Švejk addresses them ‘Poslušně hlásím’, often before launching into a lengthy tangential story from his rich experience as a Prague barfly.
“I humbly report, mister field chaplain,” Švejk noted, “that this guy won’t give up, like that guy Boušek from Libeň. Eighteen times in one evening they threw him out of Exner’s and each time he returned, saying he’d forgotten his pipe. He climbed in through the window, the doors, through the kitchen, across the wall into the seating area, through the basement into the bar area, and he would have gotten in through the chimney if the firemen had not taken him down from the roof. He was so persistent that he could have been a minister or a member of parliament”– The Good Soldier vol. 1 ch. 13, p. 178.
Libeň is an area in Prague; U Exnerů is a bar there, one of the many referenced in The Good Soldier.
Unfortunately, death took Hašek before he could finish the book, which trails off without resolution halfway the fourth volume, just after Švejk is captured by Russian forces. Hašek left us with an unfinished but hilarious novel, brought to life by the illustrations of Josef Lada. The novel, which was turned into a successful movie during the 1950s, for a while secured Hašek’s position as the world’s most famous Czech author.
In modern political discourse, Švejk is alive and kicking. When I was in the field, interviewing, many respondents mentioned him, using the character as a model for Czechs’ adaptation to foreign powers – be they Austrian, German, or Russian. He’s invoked in different ways, though – some see him as a model of inventive, resourceful passive resistance against overbearing authorities. In fact, during the 1968 invasion, Václav Havel spoke on the radio and called on listeners to
“ridicule [the enemy], and reveal to him the absurdity of the situation … If at a certain moment you decide it is more appropriate to behave like Hus, behave like Hus, if you on the other hand, decide it is more effective to behave like Švejk, behave like Švejk.” – Havel, quoted in Žantovský’s Havel, A Life, 2014, p. 117
However, many other Czechs read both Švejk and the Czech nation differently. Rather than seeing Svejk’s action as willful and intentional passive resistance, they see Švejk as stupid, lacking in morality, readily and unquestioningly submitting to authority. And they see the Czechs like they see Švejk: as a nation in moral crisis, that sold out to the communists, going along and collaborating without compunction to save their skins.
It is easy to see how these two views of the novel could come about – Hašek leaves it open to interpretation how stupid or cunning Švejk really is. Tellingly, The Good Soldier was widely available during communist times.
It is precisely these competing views over Czech history, Czech national identity, and the historical position of the Czechs between the great European powers – as exemplified by the different views of Švejk – that my research addresses. The fact that Czech politicians will invoke this character from a novel that I love to make their point makes studying Czech politics all the more fascinating. And that’s why I took @poslusnehlasim as my twitter handle!