The Prague writer and humorist Jaroslav Haek became famous particularly for the novel Osudy dobrého vojáka vejka za světové války (The Good Soldier vejk and his Fortunes in the World War). He was also the author of about fifteen hundred stories, sketches, newspaper columns and he also wrote plays for cabarets. Haek took his subjects directly from his own life and experiences. His work was very closely linked to his bohemian life-style, which became the subject of many stories and legends that Haek himself helped to create. In his best works the spontaneity of his storytelling and overall ironic detachment expressed his belief in unpretentiousness and tolerance. His original practical jokes have become a timeless metaphor for a world full of absurdities and misunderstandings.
Haek was born on the 30th of April 1883 in Prague. His father, who died in 1896, was a teacher of mathematics and a bank official. Both his father and his mother Kateřna, née Jareová) came from south Bohemian families of farming stock. They lived in Prague in straitened circumstances and often moved house. Jaroslav attended the secondary school in itná Street in Prague. However he left in 1898 as he was not doing well in his schoolwork and began to work in a chemist's shop in Pertýn in central Prague. From 1899 - 1902 he studied at the Commercial Academy in Resslova Street. After his final examinations he worked in the Slavia Bank. A year later however he gave up his job and set off on an adventurous journey tramping through Slovakia, Hungary, the Balkans and Galicia. In the next few years he visited, among other places, Bavaria, Switzerland and Austria and often travelled around Bohemia. He had already begun writing when he was still a student and his first efforts had been published. These were chiefly amusing accounts of his travels and short literary essays inspired by his roaming through Moravia, Slovakia and Poland during the holidays. Gradually his studies of everyday life and original portraits of simple people became realistic rather than romantically charming and his extravagant humour was already a feature.
At the beginning of the century, Czech cultural life was profiting from the modernist influences of the nineties. Haek counted himself one of the rising generation that once again laid stress on individual scepticism and revolt against convention. However reacting against aesthetic decadence and symbolism they turned their attention directly to their own experiences in their daily lives. They tended to take up anarchic attitudes and to write in a loose, popular, mocking, bohemian style. Haek, however, was by nature cynically anti literary establishment, and soon broke away from contemporary literary movements. For him his writing was a mere job. He wrote mainly for amusement - his own and the public's. Even his first book Májové výkřiky (May Cries,1903) was a parody, shattering the sentimental delusions of poets, juxtaposing them with unattractiveness of ordinary life and the contrasts between rich and poor. The activities and the naivety of writers and artists - including himself - often became the targets of Haek's mockery. Later it was only on rare occasions that Haek wrote satirical verse (eg the book Kalamajka,1913).
In the period prior to World War One, Haek worked as a publicist and editor but his chief source of income came from the hundreds of humorous short stories and anecdotes that were printed in many different newspapers and magazines. He also used more than a hundred pseudonyms, some of which have probably not been discovered. Thereafter he published books of collections of humorous stories: Dobrý voják vejk a jiné podivné historky (The Good Soldier vejk and Other Strange Stories,1912), Trampoty pana Tenkráta (The Tribulations of Mr Tenkrát,1912), Průvodčí cizinců a jiné satiry z cest i z domova (The Foreigeners' Guide and Other Satirical Tales from Home and Abroad,1913), Můj obchod se psy a jiné humoresky (My Dealings with Dogs and Other Amusing Tales,1915).
Writing came very easily to Haek. He wrote almost without conscious effort, usually in coffee-houses or pubs from which his manuscripts went straight to the editor's or the printer's, often without Haek reading them over. He soon became a very popular humorist. As a professional craftsman Haek used traditional themes of the everyday life of ordinary people, but his natural intuitive manner of telling a story also destroyed these themes of light popular literature. Almost every section of society provided him with material but he found his preferred subjects in town life, in unusual bizarre details, characters and situations. The sarcasm in his miniatures often targeted narrow-minded politicians, the church and the army. He ridiculed bureaucracy, exposed cliches and excessive pettifogging caution, reducing it to the absurd by the use of provocative, nonsensical narrative style. Dozens of his best constructed stories from this period reveal his exceptional feeling for the popular touch and for hyperbole. He is able to highlight witty, pointed (tragi)-comic moments of discord and contrasts in life-styles, conflicts between words and deeds, between ideals and faith on the one hand and harsh reality on the other.
The raciness and irony, almost contempt, in Haek's narratives were closely related to his realism and his own life. The way he lived gave him both material for his wrtiting and the means of self-expression. He put the same energy into the "creation" of his own life by playing extravagant, clownish pranks and perpetrating hoaxes (with almost dadaistic features), conniving at creating legends about himself. He lived by night, in his own peculiar world of licentiousness and fantasy; in pubs he was entertainer, drinker, alcoholic, the leading spirit of a bohemian group, a troublemaker skirmishing with the police. He showed no interest in normal standards of behaviour and had no time for any ideologies or political beliefs. In many of the stories about Haek, handed down to us it is very difficult to separate truth from fiction. By the same token however Haek's exhibitionism and "childish" openness obviously concealed the spiritual depression and loneliness of a basically introverted man. Bohemianism and exaggeration are ever present as if to remind us again and again of the absurdity all around us, so that the reader, faced with whatever the author writes or does, cannot be absolutely sure whether he is serious or not, or if he can be trusted. The interrelation of his life, literary work and his hoaxes is the determining factor in explaining and interpreting all Haek's work.
At first Haek showed radical and anarchic tendencies. In 1904 he became editor of the north Bohemian anarchic paper Omladina (The Younger Generation) between 1906 and 1907 he was on the editorial staff of the similarly anarchic papers Chuďas (Poor Man), Nová omladina (New Younger Generation) and Komuna. (The Commune). In 1907 he was sent to prison for a month for his part in an anarchic rally and after that he left the movement. In 1910, having known her for several years, Haek married Jarmila Majerová, the daughter of a wealthy stucco decorator. (Later she wrote humorous short stories, novels and books for young people). However after his son Richard was born two years later, Haek left his family and again lived his bohemian life. He probably attempted to commit suicide in 1911 and spent three weeks in a psychiatric clinic. To earn his living in the years between 1908 and 1913 he had several casual jobs. He was the editor of enský obzor, (The Female Horizon) he worked in the election office of the National Socialist Party, he edited the magazine Svět zvířat (The World of Animals), he bought and sold dogs and wrote a gossip column for České slovo (The Czech Word).
Through his work as a journalist he perpetrated a remarkable series of frauds and hoaxes. Later these were collected in a book called Zábavný a poučný koutek Jaroslava Haka (Amusing and Instructive Articles by Jaroslav Haek, 1973). For the scientific journal Svět zvířat Haek, besides editing humorous tales and anecdotes, added bits to scholarly treatises, caricatured their style, showed up weird connections (especially between the animal and human worlds), indulged in hyperbole, and invented "unknown" animal species. He engaged in correspondence with outraged readers and answered the letters of grateful readers (some of which he wrote himself). Pictorial material was also treated unconventionally. Innovative use was made of the technique of collage. Obviously this made him the pioneer of the so-called journalistic hoax even before Karel Kraus. He also used his talent for invention on news items for the paper České slovo, changing them into anecdotes. He took strange or bizarre events mainly from Prague and its environs and wrote them up as if taking place in the present, even bringing up to date the clichés in the journalists' reports. Haek also took the chance to write for papers of opposing political persuasion - the social democrat Právo lidu (The Rights of the People) and the national socialist České slovo - giving early warning of the nature of his future political hoaxes. An example of how he maintained an ironic detached view of contemporary social and cultural events is given by Václav Menger on page 193 of his biography of Haek, Lidský profil Jaroslava Haka (A Profile of Jaroslav Haek, Prague,1946):"Once there was a controversy that filled at least fourteen issues of one of the papers and in the end it was discovered that Haek had written both sides of the dispute. In the articles he had attacked himself so violently that the editors feared there would be a court case. When the truth came out Haek could continue to write for both papers only under new pseudonyms."
In the spring of 1911 Haek perpretrated his most sensational literary and political hoax. He turned his fellow bohemians from the pub into The Party of Moderate and Peaceful Progress Within the Limits of the Law and took part in an election campaign for a by-election to the Imperial Council in Vinohrady in Prague. Although he was not registered as an official candidate he is said to have polled several dozen votes. In his speeches , given in pubs, he parodied political infighting and invented arguments and quarrels. With others he made up "happenings", practical jokes and cabaret scenes. Then between the autumn of 1911 and the spring of 1912 he wrotePolitické a sociální dějiny strany mírnoho pokroku v mezích zákona (The Political and Social History of the Party of Moderate and Peaceful Progress Within the Limits of the Law). It was not till 1963 that these collections of humorous stories and parodies, some of his best work, were published together in book form. In his History he used various types of writing, reports, pamphlets, letters; he recorded the history of his bohemian entourage and his lectures; he included autobiographical details from his travels and his journalism and other experiences. He drew portraits of friends and people from contemporary cultural and social life. He gave exaggerated descriptions of various muddles, misunderstandings and mistakes. He ridiculed popular rhetoric and by caricaturing numerous historical cases, cliches and paradoxes he created a lively satire on petty politics, jingoism, hollow pedantry and compulsive writing. Less flamboyantly he wrote of the positive aspects and the dangers of the power of words and dabbling with the foolishness lurking between honesty and falsehood. Haek tackled pseudoreality when he elaborated upon the theme of a strange, spoof political party in the History of the Party of Moderate and Peaceful Progress Within the Limits of the Law. The work was his most significant achievement before the postwar Osudy dobrého vojáka vejka (The Good Soldier vejk). It was not merely a metaphor for a lying, hypocritical society. It also showed ways of avoiding being taken in. It assured the reader that reality is not definable, that it transcends human interpretaton and defies human categorisation.
The Party of Moderate and Peaceful Progress Within the Limits of the Law was turned into a cabaret act that was performed on special occasions in wine cellars and restaurants. There were short scenes and one-act plays by Haek, group plays and improvisations, in which Josef Mach, Jiří Mahen, Frantiek Langer and others took part. (Before the war Haek had been a guest actor in other Prague cabarets.) The book Větrný mlynář a jeho dcera (The Miller and his Daughter, 1976), pieced together from surviving manuscripts, records this side of Haek's life.
In February 1915 Haek joined the 91st Infantry Regiment in České Budějovice. In May he went with it to Most nad Litavou and in June they crossed the Raab and went by way of Budapest to the Galician front. In September he was taken prisoner during the retreat and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Dárnice near Kiev and then to Totskoye near Buzuluk, where he survived a typhoid epidemic. In the spring of 1916 he enlisted in the Czech Foreign Legion, fighting against Austria on the side of the Allies. In the Legion Haek worked as a typist and was secretary to the regimental committee. He also wrote humorous pieces, articles and reports for the magazine Čechoslovan (The Czecho-Slav), in which he supported the fight for an independent state, just as in the novel Dobrý voják vejk v zajetí (The Good Soldier vejk in Captivity, 1917). In 1917 he was involved in the battle of Zborov and was mentioned in dispatches. After the retreat to the Ukraine, however, he came into conflict with his superiors, when he criticized the smallmindedness and the overcautious attitude of the Czech National Council in Russia and the leadership of the Legion. After the victory of the Bolshevik revolution he refused to go with the Legion to France and in the subsequent chaos at the end of 1917 and the beginning of 1918 he became involved in the attempt to establish a Revolutionary Council of Czech workers and soldiers in Kiev. After that he went to Moscow and joined the Czech Social Democrats (the Bolsheviks). He became a political activist in the Red Army, press organizer, editor of army magazines in various languages and publicist. He organized recruitment in Samara. In September he went to Simbirsk; from there he was sent to Bulguma as assistant to the military commander of the town. In 1919 he was in charge of the army printing works in Ufa. After going to Chelyabinsk (and later to Omsk, Krasnoyarsk and Irkutsk) he worked in the political department for national minorities in the Fifth army and as press inspector and publicist.
During the five years of war and revolution the serious side of Haek's nature revealed itself. Still impulsive and politically a radical, he gradually began to believe in the idea of social justice for which he might be able to work and live respectably. If the idea of social justice was to be put into practice, it would improve conditions even in Bohemia. But Haek, always keenly aware of the conflict between dream and reality, eventually seems to have lost this faith. In 1920 in Krasnoyarsk he married for the second time - without being divorced from his first wife. He returned with his second wife, Alexandra (ura) Lvova, who was employed in a printing works, to Prague by way of Narvik and Stettin. He was expected to work as a political activist in the now independent Czechoslovakia. However, the country to which he had returned after the war resembled little the country he had left. His personal circumstances were complicated, he relapsed into his bohemian lifestyle and started drinking again. He avoided politics and political debate, his jokes became coarser and more cynical; this was evidently connected with the resignation and spiritual schizophrenia he felt on his return. At the same time he renewed the ironic practical jokes in the spirit of the Party of Moderate and Peaceful Progress Within the Limits of the Law , and he also wrote cabaret acts. For a short time he worked in the cabaret Červená sedma. Once again he contributed humorous short stories and articles to magazines. Collections of these along with earlier works he published in the books, Dva tucty povídek, (Two Dozen Tales, 1920), Pepíček Nový a jiné povídky (Pepíček Nový and Other Stories, 1921), Tři mui se rallokem a jiné poučné historky (Three Men and a Shark and Other Illuminating Tales, 1921), Mírová konference a jiné humoresky (Peace Conference and Other Funny Stories, 1922). He recorded his experiences in Russia in the series of stories Velitelem města Bugulmy (The Commander of the Town of Bulguma),originally published in magazines in 1921, in book form in 1966, his scepticism was obvious. In these stories he described with ironic detachment and satirical exaggeration the absurd quarrels with the professional, dogmatic revolutionary, the conflicts of reason and blind faith in an atmosphere of chaos with continual fighting and he wrote of the fortunes of various individuals.
In August 1921 Haek moved to the village of Lipnice nad Sázavou in southeast Bohemia where he worked on his novel Osudy dobrého vojáka vejka za světové války (The Good Soldier Svejk and his Fortunes in the World War). He had already begun writing it in Prague where it appeared in instalments throughout the years 1921-1923. When his health deteriorated, he dictated the text of the novel, mostly ready for publication, using his encyclopaedic memory. However he did not complete the task. He died on January 3rd 1923 as a result of pneumonia and heart failure.
Haek had twice already sketched out the character of the good soldier vejk. In the collections of short stories from the year 1911 Dobrý voják vejk a jiné podivné historky (The Good Soldier Svejk and Other Strange Stories) Haek introduced a goodnatured idiot and antimilitary slapstick comedy into a rigid military situation. It was first in this work that he based the comedy on mishaps caused by vejk's exaggerated willingness to do his duty and his clumsiness. In 1917 in Dobrý voják vejk v zajetí (The Good Soldier Svejk in Captivity) Haek viewed the eponymous character in a more satirical fashion and with more black humour. But he was also looking at him in the spirit of the anti-Austrian propaganda as it appeared in the press at the time. It was only after the wide-ranging postwar revision, influenced by all the author's conflicting experiences and his return to his former nonconformist scepticism, that the strange many-sided, sophisticated folk humorist and story-teller was born.
The novel recounts the adventures of ordinary folk from Prague, particularly the crooked dog-fancier Josef vejk. In 1914 on the day of the assassination in Sarajevo he is arrested by the police and imprisoned for treasonous remarks. After proclaiming his absolute loyalty to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy he is examined in a lunatic asylum and freed from police custody. Then he is called up to the army. He suffers from rheumatism but is branded a malingerer. He undergoes "treatment" in hospital and in prison. He becomes batman to the chaplain Katz and later to Lieutenant Luká with whom he goes to České Budějovice to a fighting regiment (after his anabasis and being taken for a Russian spy by the gendarmes). Then they go through Hungary to the Galician front, where, with others in Russian uniform, he is taken prisoner by the military police and condemned to death. The book covers an enormous range of events from everyday life and war and includes a host of diverse minor characters and incidents. Haek parodies contemporary texts and official documents. He uses different kinds of language, bureaucratic and military Austro-German, the language of contemporary propaganda, common Czech with vulgarisms, Hungarian, Polish, Yiddish expressions etc.. The straightforward unfolding of the plot is however swamped by vejk's many stories, anecdotes and running commentaries, loosely heaped one upon another, frequently using a vast range of contrasting styles and attributing to his actions different motives and significance.
Practically the only way the reader "recognizes" the central, unifying character is through his paradoxical discourses and hyperbole. His other characteristics (origin, physiognomy, psychology, emotions, intentions) remain vague and confused. What vejk actually does is revealed predominantly through his language, his idiosyncratic way of talking that changes according to circumstances. His words are a release, an unburdening, a defence against the onslaughts of the external world or they are an ironic attack made with almost with tongue-in-cheek sarcasm. The difficulty of penetrating the grotesque mask, the inner fragmented, ambiguous speech and the loose structure of the work means that various contradictory or even misleading interpretations are possible. For example vejk's crafty pragmatism is emphasised and made out to be the embodiment of the Central European mentality, particularly the Czech national character. Even the idealised illustrations of Haek's friend Josef Lada, that have become a traditional part of the book, can be misleading. vejk however should not be regarded as having only one side to his character. He is not to be seen merely as a simple-minded coward, or as a malingerer and saboteur, or as a stolid egoist, or as a good-natured or cunning sophist, or as a folk or even proletarian hero. Likewise all of Haek's work, epitomized and dominated by vejk, has been received in widely different ways. It has been enthusiastically praised and totally rejected. It has been considered negative and optimistic; in fact it has often touched both of these extremes. At the same time critics and interpreters have pointed out affinities with the traditions of Cervantes and Rabelais and with the picaresque novel. They have sought parallels with the work of Franz Kafka and others. The novel has been translated into dozens of languages and has been the subject of many theatrical productions and film adaptations (eg by Max Brod, Hans Reimann, Erwin Piscator, Bertold Brecht).
OSudy dobrého vojáka vejka za světové války (The Good Soldier vejk and his Fortunes in the World War) was above all written to entertain. However it transcended the typical anti-war satirical novel. A more profound meaning in the work comes out through the language, fluent, lively with inventive intellectual plays on words, revealing a peculiar vision and experience of the world. It reflects the situation of the individual under pressure from society caught up in history and in the conflict between ordinary, natural humanity and empty cliches, moral prejudice, false idols and authoritarian instutions. The unsettled reader is invited to do away with nonsense by resorting to pragmatism, matter-of-factness, humour and unfettered imagination. He is challenged to play a game with the meanings of reality, which is full of paradoxes and tricks - hence it is comic.
©Dr Jan Culik, 1999