Thursday, 2 February 2012

Drunkard’s Tales by Jaroslav Hašek

Hašek’s book of boozy stories is a nice stop-gap when the book I’m supposed to be reading sends me into fits of narcolepsy on the train. (The current offender is Iris Murdoch, a brilliant writer, but one seemingly unsuited to public transport.) He is a great chronicler of drunken misfortune: one who sees the pleasures, perils and pains of drinking all in the same glass.

In his story Captured by Carthagians, Hašek has just come out of a rowdy political meeting where he and his party have won a decisive moral victory by being duffed up by the opposition. Nursing a shiner, he is accosted by someone in the street:

It was my friend Ladislav Hájek-Domažlický, whom I haven’t seen for two years, and who is a good friend of mine since that memorable day when he didn’t betray me in Hradčany, at the pub under the arcades where they serve beer from the Volseký imperial brewery.

While Hašek doesn’t go on to explain exactly what happened in the pub under the arcades in Hradčany, he does go on to relate another tale from back in 1902, when finding themselves on their uppers, they decide to tap a wealthy relative of Hájek’s for some cash. Uncle Hájek is now in a monastery, but they reckon he should be good for fifty crowns, so they write a long letter explaining how Hájek has fallen ill and has had to borrow money from Hašek to buy medicines:

We had styled the letter in the pub, where we had come moneyless, since the rich Strahov monastery was like a promised land. We had a great time, we drank, smoked, and at half past three I went to see the philanthropic priest, the uncle of my friend Hájek, in Strahov. When I had arrived, they informed me that the reverend vicar Hájek is at the evensong and will come back within the hour. I went back to the pub and again we ate, drank, smoked and played billiards. “On such a happy day we have to have wine,” said Hájek, “my uncle is an angel.”

Hašek finally gets an audience with the uncle, who listens patiently to his story before giving him an envelope that clearly contains a note. Hašek hurries back to the boozer and they rip it open, expecting to find cash. Unfortunately, Uncle Hájek appears to have got wise to their scheme:

You crooks! I saw you going into the pub! When I went to the evensong you were still there. Be ashamed! Vicar Hájek

This doesn’t auger well, considering that they’ve run up quite a tab in the pub:

And so we sat there imprisoned by the innkeeper, in a foreign atmosphere, far from friends, desperate, and outdoing each other in generosity, since each of us maintained that he’ll be the one to go down to the city and come back with money to pay the bill.

They draw straws as to who is to go back into Prague to get the money. Hašek gets left behind as the deposit:

At ten o’clock, when in desperation I doubled the bill, Hájek appeared and said, “Kill me! I borrowed six crowns off your uncle, and stopped in one pub. They were playing cards there, I wanted to double our fortune, I lost, and I am skint.”

As the author drily points out:

The old Roman hero, Regulus, came voluntarily back from Rome to Carthage in captivity, only to be tortured to death.

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