Congratulations on Your Name Day by Rudolf Kalvach (1907)

The Apprentices of the Kobkán Shipping Company by Jaroslav Hašek

In Czech culture, each day of the year corresponds to a particular first name or names. On a name day, small gifts are given and celebrations held for the person of honor. The tradition originated in liturgical calendars and feast days of saints. Once popular throughout Catholic and Orthodox countries, and often more important than birthday celebrations, name day customs are still celebrated in modern Czechia. 

For the name day of Jaroslav Hašek, April 27th, we're posting this topical story of his, which features a group of hapless shipping clerks trying to compose well-wishes for their boss. Unlike Hašek, or rather Jaroslav, the characters are identified by surname, so we don't know the particular day of their own name day celebrations. This story and others can be found in our imminently forthcoming collection, The Man Without a Transit Pass, in a translation by Dustin Stalnaker.

The proprietor of the well-known Kobkán Shipping Company had Pecháček, an apprentice in the correspondence division, summoned to his office, and spoke with him at length.

As Pecháček returned to his desk, he was pale; his entire body trembled, and his hair stood on end.

“Notice of termination?” asked the accounting clerk.

In place of an answer, the apprentice Pecháček took his hat and winter jacket and left the office without a word. The accounting clerk went immediately to the director’s office; as he returned, he shook his head and said: “I really don’t understand it. The boss gave him the entire afternoon off, to spend at a wine tavern.”

Five apprentices looked with envy at Pecháček’s empty chair and then immersed themselves once more in their calculations.

A strange mood spread throughout the office of the Kobkán Shipping Company; something mysterious, enigmatic, and incomprehensible had happened.

At the same time, what transpired was quite ordinary, if also a bit unusual. The director had had a friendly conversation with Pecháček. He said: “Mr. Pecháček, you are a young, gifted person. The manager and the accounting clerk praise you highly. You are diligent, humble, versatile, judicious, good-natured, and industrious. You neither drink, nor smoke, nor play cards, nor behave inappropriately towards women. You are not in debt, you take no advances on your wages, you can numerate and calculate well, you have fine penmanship, you waste no paper, you arrive at the office punctually, and you are the last to go home. You have a mind for business, you write quickly and flexibly in shorthand, you type without error on every typewriter, regardless of the apparatus. You know several languages, and you dress modestly but properly. Your shoes are always carefully polished and the collars of your shirts are always clean…”

In bliss, the exemplary apprentice grew teary-eyed, and he looked, transfixed, at his boss, who looked at his apprentice with an endearing, kind-hearted gaze and said with a soft voice: “My name day is fourteen days away. It would make me so happy on that occasion to see well-wishes in the newspapers from my staff, friends, and acquaintances. It goes without saying that I, myself, will cover the associated expenses. However, I would like the well-wishes for the occasion not to be run-of-the-mill. I desire something unique—let us say something written in the style of a shipping agent. Something that has not been done before. Something lovely, so that years later the reader will still recall the well-wishes for my name day. Something that everyone will find moving. And for this reason, I thought of you. It goes without saying that you should not mention anything about this to anyone. Let me shake your hand.”

The apprentice extended his trembling hand to the director, who shook it and continued: “So you shall do it. Today is a lovely sunny day that will inspire you. Therefore, I am giving you the entire afternoon off. Go to a wine tavern and drink a half liter of muscat or vermouth, so you can versify more successfully. I know you will not drink to excess. Then go to Stromovka Park, sit on a bench there, and compose the well-wishes for my name day. Here’s fifty crowns.”

And so it happened that Pecháček, white as chalk, returned to his desk. He complied with the first and the second part of his instructions precisely.

Like a machine, he went to the wine tavern and drank a quarter liter of muscat and the same of vermouth—not excessively—and went to the park. There he sat down on a bench and began to write.

To his horror, he found that he did not feel inspired, and every capacity that his director attributed to him as a gifted apprentice was simply inaccessible—that neither
a lovely sunny day nor muscat and vermouth could help.

“Christ above,” he sighed, “what rubbish I’ve written—there’s nothing original about it whatsoever. Why, is it not nonsense to write: ‘Hear our most inner wishes, that your life’s fullness be as rich as the heavens are full of stars. Of your work, daily successes under this firmament. Happiness and long life, one success succeeding the next. Many years of joy and happiness ahead, that every wish be fulfilled—so wish all of your acquaintances, friends, and staff.’”

Pecháček tore the composed well-wishes out of his notebook, ripped them up, and tossed them in a wastebasket, then contemplated further and wrote.

Countless name day well-wishes filled the pages of the notebook:

“This year, too, our wishes are ones of good fortune for you, we wish you wholeheartedly an entire year of the very finest once again. Daily naught but pleasures and the best, health and good things aplenty. Moving trucks at half price, also the greatest comforts with the noble wife and the family—so wish your acquaintances, friends, and staff.”

“May the cornucopia bring you only exuberant friends and a long life. Success and happiness, numerous transactions with the noble wife, and best wishes experienced in delight. Your acquaintances, friends, and staff wish you that wholeheartedly.”

“May business blossom in pure delights and without distress to you. May your life flow as blissfully as a calm brook. May the Lord bless you with a long life. Success in every endeavor. That there be no illness. That the raising of shipping tariffs not be on the horizon—so desire all the acquaintances, friends, and staff, on all accounts.”

Further into the notebook appeared suggestions for rhymes: place–grace, good–could, sing–bring, name–fame, venerate–generate.

The unfortunate apprentice crossed everything out, tore up his notes, tossed them, and went to the next park, where he held his head in his hands.

“I’m daft, an idiot, nothing but a halfwit; my brain is melting. Something original in the style of a shipping agent. My dim-witted skull! An idiot I am, I’ve lost my mind! Intelligent? An ox! Naught but straw for brains!”

He attempted to find inspiration in a tavern with the aid of a bottle of wine. In place of the anticipated eureka moment arose such a fit of stupidity that he wrote:

“On this day so precious, we wish from the heart a life of further fortune, and that you may be constantly joyous at all times. May only well-being blossom and success stream upon all endeavors, long years of health and an abundance of flowers be seen from your windows. So wish wholeheartedly your acquaintances, friends, and staff.”

“Finished,” he said, laughing dully at his lines, “I’m a mongrel, a mundane dullard, and degenerate.”

In the early morning, his hat was found on the causeway of the sluice at Klecany. In the hat lay a piece of paper with his address and the words: “I can’t…” and nothing more.

At the office, the five apprentices discussed the mysterious suicide of their colleague, Pecháček. They spoke softly, with a fitting degree of sorrow, because they missed him—good, dependable Pecháček.

The office attendant appeared and said: “Apprentice Klofanda to the director’s office!”

“I’m coming!”

The director said: “Mr. Klofanda, you are a young, gifted person. The manager and the accounting clerk praise you highly. You are diligent, versatile, judicious, humble, honest, and industrious.”

And so on, to the point of “Here’s fifty crowns.”

As Klofanda returned to his desk, he was pale; his entire body trembled, his hair stood on end, he said nothing, and he left the office, taking hat and coat.

The atmosphere of the enigmatic, the mysterious, and the unknown grew thicker still.

The remaining four apprentices shook their heads.

Klofanda possessed less of the writer’s gift than the dearly departed Pecháček, but he was a pure, tender, and responsible soul. Meditate as he might, nothing occurred to him. Before he hanged himself that night in the Hodkovičky forest, he had managed to muster nothing more than: “It is our most heartfelt wish to convey to you our most sincere well-wishes; all of your acquaintances, friends, and staff wish this.”

“I alone am responsible for my death,” he wrote on a piece of paper that he tucked into his winter jacket.

The four apprentices in the office had not yet fully discussed the curious death of their second colleague, when the office attendant appeared once again: “Apprentice Vencl to the director!”

“I’m coming!”

And then said the director: “Mr. Vencl, you are diligent, versatile, judicious, humble, good-natured, and industrious.”

And so on, to the point of “Here’s fifty crowns.”

The atmosphere of the enigmatic, the mysterious, and the unknown thickened yet again. A faint smell of death wafted through the office.

Apprentice Vencl came up with absolutely nothing. He died at the Prague stone quarries, where he slit his wrists, leaving behind not a single line of text.

“Apprentice Košt’ák to the director!” …

“I’m coming!”

Košt’ák resisted death for a time. For two full days he hid in the gardens of Petřín Hill, and only on the third day did he jump from the scenic overlook there. At that point, he was already thoroughly deranged and was under the impression that his director was no shipping agent but rather a merchant dealing in live birds, and that he needed to compose well-wishes for a silver wedding anniversary.

That explained also why, on one page of his notebook, the following note was found: “That happy times may bloom, that the silver wedding anniversary should recur every year, that business may prosper, and that a thousand doves, rabbits, and fish are sold profitably. So wishes your Jan Košt’ák.”

At the office of Mr. Kobkán only two apprentices remained. 

“Apprentice Havlík to the director!” …

“I’m coming!”

Once he had written his original well-wish in the form of a business telegram— “Kobkán, shipping agent…birthday…heartfelt congratulations…acquaintances…friends…the staff”—he impaled himself with a pocket knife in the restroom of the Municipal House.

“Apprentice Pilař to the director!”

The last of the apprentices remaining at the Kóbkan shipping firm went pale. He had an uncertain premonition that behind the door of the director’s office lay the source of that enormous tragedy that had befallen
the apprentices of this shipping firm, a tragedy that was simply incomprehensible, and he sensed that the enigmatic, the mysterious, and the unknown now approached him as well.

“Apprentice Pilař to the director immediately!” repeated the office attendant.

The final apprentice stood up and cried out in despair: “I’m not going!”

There were four pale faces in the office: that of the apprentice, the manager, the accounting clerk, and the office attendant.

“Mr. Pilař,” the accounting clerk said questioningly, “consider what you are saying. It is unheard of in Bohemia that an apprentice will not go when the director calls him.”

“I won’t go,” repeated the last apprentice despairingly, “I’m not going anywhere.”

The director himself appeared in the doorway. “Mr. Pilař, come into the office. I have had you called twice already.”

“I won’t go!” cried the last apprentice, “when I say to you that I won’t go, I won’t go.

He began to gesticulate wildly with his hands and cried, “Everyone is gone, the dearly departed Pecháček, the dearly departed Klofanda, the dearly departed Vencl, the dearly departed Košt’ák, the dearly departed Havlík. Only I go not, I’m not going anywhere.”

He took hold of a heavy ledger book and slammed it on the table.

“I shall remain seated, I will not go anywhere, I will smash everything, I will batter everyone to death. I am Captain Mora, world sensation and unsurpassed in the aviation scene. I fear you not!” 

The medical personnel had no complaints about the last apprentice of the Kobkán firm. On his straitjacket were five buttons, and he pointed to the buttons, counted, and said: “The first is Klofanda, the second is Vencl, the third Košt’ák, the fourth Havlík, the fifth Pecháček. No, that’s not right. The first is Pecháček, the second is Klofanda, the third is Vencl, the fourth Košt’ák, the fifth Havlík. Everyone went, but I go not, I’m not going anywhere!”

The doctors slowly lost hope that he could be rehabilitated. The name day of Mr. Kobkán passed without original well-wishes in the newspaper. In the office sit six fresh apprentices. The police have only until the proprietor’s next name day to explain the mysterious die-off of apprentices at the Kobkán Shipping Company.


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