"I Served the King of England"
(Reviewed by Mary Whipple SEP 26, 2007)
"The unbelievable that came true stayed with me, and I believed in the unbelievable, in the star that had followed me through life, and with its gleam constantly before my eyes I began to believe in it more and more…Now that I had been brought to my knees, I realized that my star was brighter than ever, that only now would I be able to see its true brightness, because my eyes had been weakened by everything I had lived through, weakened so that they could see more and know more."--Ditie, near the end of his life.
Czech author Bohumil Hrabal, often at odds with the government of Czechoslovakia during the 1970s and 1980s, first published this tragicomic novel as a typescript in 1979, and later in book form in 1983. Hrabal and fellow-members of the Jazz Section of the Czech Musicians' Union distributed it secretly for two years before many were arrested and sentenced to jail for their efforts. Hardly what modern readers would consider subversive or dangerous, the novel is a first-person account by Ditie, who begins his story as a teenage busboy at a rural hotel, progresses to waiter, and eventually to successful hotel owner. It gives nothing away (and the book cover itself includes this summary) to say that when the Czech government falls to communism, Ditie ends up working the roads in a mountain village.
The picaresque plot is the least important aspect of the book, since it is merely the framework for a series of often hilarious stories about the people he works with, the lives they have led, the values they maintain, their hopes for the future, and the sometimes large chasm between their dreams and reality. Set in rural hotels, at camps in the Czech mountains during the German occupation during World War II, and in Prague, where Ditie served, not the King of England, but the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, the novel literally ends at the "end of the road," where Ditie resides with his horse, goat, and cat. There, he lives on his memories, at peace with his fate—keeping the road to nowhere open for traffic, which never comes. Wanting to leave behind a record of his life, he spends his evening hours writing his autobiography, which becomes this book.
Ditie is a delightful story-teller, using the casual, almost innocent language of a young boy at the beginning and becoming philosophical and contemplative by the end. Hrabal's sensitivity to small details and his accurate depiction of real people responding to real situations in sometimes odd and often darkly humorous ways make this sometimes satiric novel a delight to read.
Ditie's ribald and rowdy descriptions of his own sexual awakening and stories of how the customers at the various hotels cultivate female companionship give energy and humor to the beginning of the novel, but Ditie maintains his dignity when he describes the important people with whom he comes into contact—the highly esteemed headwaiter who "served the King of England," but mentors him; the President of the Czechoslovakia during his stay at the hotel; and eventually Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, for whom Ditie is personal waiter when he comes to the Hotel Tichota. The jealousies of his fellow-workers and their back-stabbing behavior sometimes force Ditie to seek new employment, but he is resilient, and he has the support of one of his earliest customers, who helps him to find new work when the times demand it.
The novel takes a new, darker turn, when Ditie, labeled a German sympathizer for his relationship with the German woman he later marries, leaves Prague to live in the mountains at a breeding station the Germans have established to develop a "refined race of humans." Lise, his wife, becomes commander of the nursing corps and travels widely, while Ditie remains behind, a favorite of the pregnant women at the breeding station. When Lise returns from Warsaw with a small suitcase full of valuable stamps, confiscated from the Jews, they both know that their financial futures are secure. Their lives are less secure, however, and Ditie eventually dissociates himself from the Germans and tries to re-establish a life of his own, this time as the owner of a hotel he builds with the proceeds from the sale of the stamps.
Eventually, Ditie must come face to face with his life, and he does so with a fatalism that is also full of grace. The reader may have a hard time believing that anyone could start so low, reach such heights, and then fall lower than he was at the beginning of his life--and still be grateful for the opportunity to learn from these experiences--but Ditie is relatively content. He has opened his mind, and he knows what is important, despite his harsh living conditions. All he wants is to leave behind a record. After all, he "served the Emperor of Ethiopia," and that is important.
By turns hilarious and poignant, satiric and sensitive, the novel depicts many aspects of Czech society and culture, but it is, above all, the story of Ditie, in many ways an everyman. With symbolism throughout, and a repeating character, Zdenek, the headwaiter who "served the King of England," who appears at every crossroads in Ditie's life, the novel is more than a comic romp. A record of a time, place, and culture, it is also Ditie's meditation on his life and his role, if any, in the wider world.
Soon to be released as a major film by Academy Award-winning Czech director Jiri Menzel, who also directed the film of Bohumil Hrabal's Closely Watched Trains, this novel deserves to find a wide, long-overdue audience. (Translated by Paul Wilson.)
- Amazon readers rating: from 19 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Death of Mr. Baltisberger (1975)
- I Served the King of England (1989; May 2007)
- Too Loud a Solitude (1990)
- The Little Town Where Time Stood Still (1993)
- Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (1995)
- Closely Watched Trains (1995)
- Total Fears Letters to Dubenka (1999)
- In-House Weddings (August 2007)
Movies from Books:
- Pearls of the Deep (1965)
- Closely Observed Trains (1966)
- Larks on a String (1969, released in 1990)
- Cutting it Short (1980)
- The Snowdrop Festival (1983)
- Tender Barbarian (1989)
- Angel Eyes (1994)
- Too Loud a Solitude (1995)
- I Served the King of England
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- Wikipedia page on Bohumil Hrabal
- Guardian Unlimited on Bohumil Hrabal
- London Review of Books profile of Bohumil Hrabal
- The Art Bin profile of Bohumil Hrabal
- Kirjasto page on Bohumil Hrabal
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About the Author:
Bohumil Hrabal was born in 1914, near Brno-Zidenice, Moravia (Czech Republic), but his childhood was spent in Nymburk, where his step-father worked as a brewery manager. Just before the World War II, Hrabal entered Charles University, Prague. In 1937 his first printed work Prsi (It’s Raining) was published in Nymburk newspapers. After the Nazis closed the universities, he took up various jobs, including a dispatcher in a small railway station and an assistent in a small law firm in Nymburk in 1939-1940. In 1946 Hrabal received his law degree, but he never practiced. Instead he tried a wide variety of occupations - he worked as a commercial and insurance agent, a steelworker in Kladno foundries, a handler of waste paper, and a stagehand in a Prague theater. These experiences provided him much material for his tales and anecdotes.
Hrabal established himself relatively late as writer, at the age of 49, although he had started to write poetry in the 1940s. He began by writing poems under the influence of French surrealism. In the early 1950's he began to experiment with a stream-of-consciousness style, and eventually wrote such classics as Closely Watched Trains which was made into an Academy Award-winning film directed by Jiri Menzel, The Death of Mr. Baltisberger, and Too Loud a Solitude. In the 1960s, Hrabal's short stories inspired the Czech "new wave" filmmakers.
Hrabal is considered as one of the greatest Czech writers of the 20th century, and perhaps the most important in the post-war period.
He fell to his death in 1997 from the fifth floor of a Prague hospital, apparently trying to feed the pigeons.