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Post "The Good Soldier Svejk"
Created by John Eipper on 11/27/18 7:45 AM

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"The Good Soldier Svejk" (Patrick Mears, Germany, 11/27/18 7:45 am)

Some years ago, I read the English translation of The Good Soldier Svejk after having come across an account of an admission by Joseph Heller that he could not have written Catch-22 without having first read Svejk.

Like Istvan Simon, I thought that it was one of the funniest, if not the funniest, novels I had ever encountered. I also understand that a portion of the narrative was based on Hasek's own experiences during World War I. I have asked Czech friends about the novel, and they are extremely proud of it and quickly say that Svejk sketches accurately the Czech national character.

On a visit to Prague after reading the novel, my wife and I were taken on a tour of the city by one of these friends, a Czech bankruptcy judge (who, by the way, works in a Prague building that lacks a modern elevator and has only a paternoster) who, at my request, took us to the "U Kalicha" restaurant, which was featured in the early chapters of the novel. Here is the link to the restaurant's website: http://www.ukalicha.cz/shop/

JE comments:  Catch-22 and Svejk definitely have the same flavor of humor.  The English translation of Svejk is very English, and strikes me as needing "localization" for US tastes.  Two examples that stick in my memory:  the use of "hog" instead of "pig," and "pants" instead of underwear.  Americans can't identify.

I've never seen a "paternoster," but they survive in Prague.  Here's a video primer on the "Elevators of Death."  Pat, you must have thought of the field day they'd give American personal-injury lawyers.


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  • Elevators of Death in Bratislava: The Paternoster (Timothy Ashby, Spain 11/27/18 10:53 AM)

    Patrick Mears's mention of a "paternoster" (and John's YouTube video) brought back memories of my work in Bratislava in the autumn of 1991 when I started my first assignment for Ernst & Young in Slovakia as a privatisation manager.

    I had just graduated with my MBA from the University of Edinburgh, where I had written my thesis on Prospects for Hungarian Privatisation. I had done an internship with PWC in Budapest the previous summer working on setting up a stock exchange.  No companies were available for listing at that time, but the attitude was similar to that in the film Field of Dreams--i.e. If you build it, he [they] will come."

    My sole Slovak assistant/translator, Roland, and I arrived at the "Ministry of Privatisation" in a Bratislava suburb which just a week earlier had been the "Ministry of Communist Youth" or something similar. With the exception of the most senior officials, all of the vast number of Communist-era bureaucrats were still in their offices, having nothing to do (and presumably not being paid). When Roland told the elderly concierge we were from Ernst & Young and that an office had be arranged for us, the poor old fellow peered at me and asked (in Slovak) "Are you Mister Ernst or Mister Young?" To get to our office, we had to take the only operational paternoster in the lobby. I had never encountered one before. At first it was daunting but I eventually mastered the art of quickly stepping on and off.

    When we arrived at our office, Roland touched his lips to caution me to be quiet, took a screwdriver from his shiny plastic briefcase, and went around the room prying electronic listening "bugs" from the plaster walls. He then told me to follow him to the basement (down the staircase rather than paternoster), and we made our way to a long room where men in white shirts and dark ties were sitting at consoles with headphones. Roland got their attention by shouting profanities at them before flinging the "bugs" at them. This was exactly like scenes in the film The Lives of Others, which I saw some years later. I assumed that no one had told them that the Communists were gone.

    JE comments:  A surveillance bureau with nothing to snoop on--there's something very profound about that!  Tim Ashby has reminded me of an excellent film I had totally forgotten:  The Lives of Others (2006).  It's a compelling portrait of life in the DDR.

    Tim, I'd love to hear more stories from your Bratislava days.

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  • UK Paternosters (John Heelan, UK 11/27/18 11:16 AM)

    My uni had paternosters that scared the life out of me every time I used them, especially after I found out the segments were on a continuous belt that involved the cabins reappearing after a short pause. I never had the courage to attempt the round trip at the top of the shaft.

    JE comments:  Can anyone tell us if paternosters existed in the US?  I presume they got their name from the prayer you say before boarding.  The biggest danger is not of death but of dismemberment.  Suppose you get your foot caught under the floor of a descending carriage.  Yikes.

    Another terrifying technology of entrapment is the "squirrel cage jail," one of which survives in Council Bluffs, Iowa.  I visited a few years ago.


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