Yes, Commissar, It's Better Than Prozac

The Red Commissar by Jaroslav Hasek, translated from Czech by Ruth Bondy. Gvanim Publishing, 131 pages, NIS 68.

The Red Commissar by Jaroslav Hasek, translated from Czech by Ruth Bondy. Gvanim Publishing, 131 pages, NIS 68.

For years, Jaroslav Hasek was etched in the collective memory as a one-book author. Indeed, even if the only thing he had written would have been the exploits of "The Good Soldier Schweik," that would have been enough of a claim to fame. It was easy to like the simple and dimwitted Czech soldier, perhaps too easy: the Kaiser in whose army he served and the pomposity of its officers at which he laughed, no longer existed when the book was written and published.

It is no wonder that Schweik was so popular in the young state of Czechoslovakia when it was recently liberated from the rule of Austrian occupation although his creator - an anarchist, drunkard and bigamist - was much less popular. The left in Czechoslovakia and beyond warmly embraced Hasek's anti-militarism and saw Schweik not only as a Czech anti-hero, but also as a universal anti-hero who ridicules any army.

But even on the left, there was no shortage of hard-line ideologues who wanted Hasek's anti-militarist criticism to stop at the border of the Soviet Union: making fun of the Communist Red army and undermining its revolutionary pretensions would be unacceptable. That is as far as it goes.

Specifically for that reason it is important to read Hasek's stories about the town of Bugulma. On second thought, the word "important" could be misleading. It's not required reading in the sense of a cultural classic. It is first of all an opportunity to have a good time. Reading "The Red Commissar" is as enjoyable as reading the exploits of Schweik, if not more so.

Hasek's Schweik-style humor is apparent here in every line, and he is also a lot braver than Schweik: it is no simple matter to level criticism at the Red Army in early 1921 so soon after the revolution that excited millions of people all over the world and while it is still engaged in the last battles of a civil war under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky. This is all the more true if you are aware that until just a short time before then, Hasek himself served in the Red Army as a political commissar and was sent to Czechoslovakia to help its young Communist movement.

When Hasek left the Soviet Union in late 1920, the Bolsheviks were still allied with Makhno's anarchist army in the Ukraine. There was a revolt in Kronstadt by laborers and sailors, who were protesting the concentration of power in the hands of the Communist Party and demanding a return to the democratic principles of the October Revolution. The revolt was quashed only in March 1921, when the last chapter of "The Red Commissar" collection of stories about the commissar of Bugulma was published in the Czech newspaper Tribuna. Imagine the chapter titled "Before the Board of the Revolutionary Tribunal of the Eastern Front" being read by Communists and Hasek's Red Army colleagues. The accused is the commissar of the town of Bugulma, i.e., Jaroslav Hasek himself. The three members of the tribunal have been sent to Bugulma after receiving a telegram from comrade Yerokhimov, the commander of the revolutionary brigade of Tver, who until then excelled primarily in evading the fighting, attempting to oust Hasek and brutally suppressing the civilian population.

Hasek describes Comrade Agapov opening the legal proceedings as follows: "He said that there was no need to call witnesses. The charge, which had been worked out in Simbirsk on the basis of a telegram from Comrade Yerokhimov, was quite sufficient. He had stated that I had set Colonel Makarov at liberty and given him my horse to enable him to go over to the enemy. He proposed that this should be the end of the trial proceedings and demanded for me the sentence of death by shooting to be carried out within 12 hours."

A lot more can be said about Hasek's short and stormy life (he died in 1923 at age 40); about the Schweik stories he wrote even before World War I (which are also included in this collection, translated into fluent and readable Hebrew by Ruth Bondy); about the Russian Communists' ambivalent attitude toward the nations that had been ruled over by the tsarist regime and which they inherited from them (Chuvashes and Tatars feature prominently in the Bugulma stories); about the history of the Party of Moderate Progress Within the Bounds of the Law (which Hasek formed in 1911 as an anarchist prank and several chapters of its history are included here) - but it's a pity to waste the time of readers who would be better off using it to read Hasek's stories instead.

Let me just add one more anecdote. Fifteen years ago in London, I came across a collection of Bugulma stories that had been translated into English and was called "The Red Commissar," and I raced through it with a mixture of enjoyment and excitement over the discovery and amazement that I had never heard of this collection before. When I returned to Israel, I suggested to the editor of the weekly where I worked at the time that he have the Bugulma stories translated into Hebrew and publish them in installments as they were first published in Prague. He asked that I leave him my copy of the book so he could read it. A few weeks later, when I was curious to find out what had become of my suggestion, he avoided giving me a clear answer. A few months later when I asked him to return my book, he refused and justified his refusal with a Hasek-like answer: "This book has to be in my library." He was right of course.

More than 10 years went by before I was able to find and buy another copy (the book is out of print) and I want to take this opportunity to make it clear: this is a book that does not belong on a shelf in a private library. It belongs on the table or next to your bed, where it is always accessible. It's better than Prozac. You can open it up at random and read a few pages. Sometimes it's enough to skim it without reading, and just recall what you can. A smile is guaranteed to follow.