In 1911 a man climbed up on the side of the historic Charles Bridge in Prague. He stood poised at the same spot where over five hundred years before John of Nepomuk was flung to his death into the murky waters of the Vltava River. The man, with a full, round face, quite pudgy and a thick head of dark hair proclaimed that he was going to commit suicide. He then proceeded to leap into the waters below. The police soon arrived and took the man, who was still alive and quite lively, off to a home for lunatics. The man who was a writer would get some of his best material from his ensuing time in the asylum.
At this point the man already had a long record with the authorities. He had been in trouble going all the way back to 1897, when at the age of fourteen he had set fires and broke windows during anti-German riots. This had occurred just a year after the death of his father – an alcoholic math teacher had drunk himself to death. On another occasion, the man had assaulted a policeman during an anarchist demonstration. Anarchism was part and parcel of this man’s inner fiber. So was vagabondage. How could it be otherwise, after all, when he was a mere infant his family had moved fifteen times in his first three years.
A Gypsy Heart
It might be said that he had a gypsy heart from the very beginning. He followed this heart at the age of sixteen far away from trade school, to a series of wandering journeys. He traveled to lands both distant and near, Galicia and Hungary, Moravia and Slovakia. There as a penniless, begging, teenage tramp he was able to find the material for his first stories. He was forever searching for material in all the wrong places. The wrong places to the world of authority and gentility he so despised. He was a bohemian in opposed to the world of bourgeoisie.
His writing was autobiographical and hysterical. It put the lie to the idea of empire, it lampooned the secret police, it laughed in the face of officialdom. It was the stuff of cynicism, an antidote to cure the social illness of phony community, of conceited, ruling fools. The joke was on them and sometimes even on his readers. There was the time he used his editorship of a journal, The Animal World to write about animals that did not exist. All in good fun, even if it did cost him his job. It would not be the first or last time he lost something dear or not so dear to him. There was the failed marriage after just a handful of years. He had tried to clean up his act for the love of his life, a woman who came from a solid middle class background. In this case opposites had attracted, but then departed. As was so often the case, his true love was vagrancy.
Lampoons As Legends
Then the war came. It was here where the adventures, follies and horrors really began, even if they were sickeningly real. The war made him as it did so many. He was a victim rather than a victor. Later he would conqueror even this conflagration, not with the sword, but the pen. His war hit all the low points, loss in battle, surrender, prisoner of war camps, revolution and disillusionment, Bolshevism and its malcontents. The war swept the old order away and brought something very different, but not much better, in time it would be worse. This was all the stuff that would become so many different stories as well as a fabulous novel, his life’s work really.
And what was his life? A series of barely believable stunts and tragicomic experiences. It was the stuff of lampoons not legends. How else to explain being present and accounted for as one of the first members of the Czech Legion, then being branded as a traitor by his countrymen soon thereafter. How else to support the Russian Revolution while being pro-monarchy. This was not ideology, instead it was anarchy. This was not just political, it was personal and individual.
The only time he ever bestrode the straight and narrow was ironically as a radical member of the Bolsheviks. He even rose to become Deputy Commandant of a small Russian town. He was well on his way to everywhere and nowhere. Success was not something he could stand too much of. For that matter neither could he stand the self-discipline or structure. It was enough to drive him back home. Home that’s where the hurt was.
He discovered that he was not only not wanted, but not needed as well. An original double negative, inane and to this lesser world insane. Traitor, Bolshevik, drunkard, bigot, was there anything left he could be. Well of course, he still had his imagination and his stories. By the end of his life he had written over a thousand of them and one great novel that would never quite be finished, a lot like his life.
Challenging Everyone and Everything
He was a few months short of forty when he succumbed. What a pitiful sight it must have been. A handful of friends and an eleven year old son standing in for the neglected family. There was no fame then, only tears or silence or stillness, so unlike his life. Perhaps this is what he didn’t like about life, it was all much to serious. Life was for laughing away the horrors. Not only not taking yourself to seriously, but not taking anything seriously. It was not only about challenging authority, but challenging everyone and everything, all the time. This was how he lived life, thumbing a nose, poking a finger, spitting in the farce of it all. Jaroslav Hasek was one of a kind and we have ourselves and he has us to thank for that.