With an introduction by Adam ThirlwellSparkling with comic genius and narrative exuberance, I Served the King of England is a story of how the unbelievable came true. Its remarkable hero, Ditie, is a hotel waiter who rises to become a millionaire and then loses it all again against the backdrop of events in Prague from the German invasion to the victory of Communism. Ditie's fantastic journey intertwines the political and the personal in a narrative that both enlightens and entertains.
It takes awhile to get there, but the third and fourth chapters (out of five total) are good, when the Nazis take over the Czechoslovakia and the narrator finds himself in love with a German woman, then subjects himself to a humiliating physical examination before being permitted to marry her. Tellingly, their son, supposedly a part of the future superior Aryan race, is mentally retarded, and this portion of the book ends with a very moving scene.
It is interesting to read Hrabal’s expression of Czech zeitgeist in the 1970’s, having endured the Nazis and then the Soviets, and in the case of the narrator, having guilt for having profited in WWII from plunder taken from the Jews, and yet, through it all, keeping a lightness, and a madcap zaniness about them. It’s an easy book to rate for me though. Four stars for chapters three and four, and two and a half stars for the rest of it.
On the beauty of nature:
“It wasn’t a small hotel, as I’d been expecting, but a small town or a large village surrounded by woods, with hot springs in the forest and air so fresh you could have put it in a cup. All you had to do was turn and face the pleasant breeze and drink it in freely, as fish breathe through their gills, and you could hear the oxygen mixed with ozone flowing through your gills, and your lungs and vital parts would gradually pump up, as though earlier, somewhere down in the valley, long before, you’d got a flat tire, and it was only now, in this air, that you’d got it automatically pumped back up to a pressure that was safer and nicer to drive on.”
“We looked at each other as though we were both naked, and again that white film came over her eyes, the kind of look women get when they are ready to cast aside the last shred of inhibition and let themselves be treated any way that seems right at the moment, when a different world opens up, a world of love games and wantonness. She gave me a long, slow kiss in front of everyone, and I closed my eyes, and as we kissed, our champagne glasses tilted in our fingers and the wine slowly spilled out onto the tablecloth, and all the guests were silent.”
On having only a few moments left before saying goodbye; this as the German soldiers were about to leave for the Russian Front:
“Only now have I got to the core of it, that what made these people beautiful was knowing that they might never see each other again. The New Man was not the victor, loud-mouthed and vain, but the man who was humble and solemn, with the beautiful eyes of a terrified animal. And so through the eyes of these lovers – because even married couples became lovers again with the dangers of the front hanging over them – I learned to see the countryside, the flowers on the tables, the children at play, and to see that every hour is a sacrament. The day and the night before the departure for the front, the lovers didn’t sleep, but they weren’t necessarily in bed either, because there was something more here than bed: there were eyes and special feeling, like seeing a sad, romantic play or movie in a large theater or movie house. I also learned that the closest that one person can be to another is through silence, an hour, then a quarter-hour, then the last few minutes of silence when the carriage has arrived, or sometimes a military britzska, or a car. Two silent people rise to their feet, gazing long at each other, a sigh, then a final kiss, then the man standing in the britzska, then the man sitting down and the vehicle driving off up the hill, the final bend in the road, the waving handkerchief.”
This fortuitous discovery, and my wistful romanticizing of Prague and the author (mainly from this photo), may have led to unrealistic expectations. I was really really ready to love this book.
And for the first half, I did. Now, Europe east of Germany acts as this hemisphere’s South America - when novels aren’t magical realist there’s always the feeling that they might go that way. Need I say that the story is against a backdrop of Czech history from the ‘30s through to the communist ‘50s? Do I have to mention that Dittie is a very small man? Comparisons with the Tin Drum are inevitable and obvious - next time someone talks about the Tin Drum say you've read this, and isn't it interesting that European literature responded to the Nazi past through stunted seducers? I don't have anything to add on the issue. I'd leave it hanging - you should too.
The breaking out of war changes the novel. From erotic adventures in brothels we come to marriage with a Nazi. It was refreshing to have a character associating with the Germans, but from here on the novel seems to lose its coherence and become one damn thing after another.
Hrabal was said to write in Hrabalovština, a playful use of Czech and probably untranslatable. He did about enough for me to want to try another of his books: he still has my respect, but for now I’m withholding my love.
A kind of fantasy set in pre-WWII and wartime Czech Republic. This could obviously be read at many different levels, and I just as obviously missed a lot of the satirical element, but it was an interesting and amusing (if that's the word) story in its own right (if a little rude!) and I didn't mind the animal violence as much as usual as it was clearly metaphorical. My attention did wander a little towards the end, but overall a good and unusual read. MUCH better than Unbearable Lightness of Being!!
Things pick up once World War 2 starts, with the annexation, followed by liberation and rise of Communism in Czechoslovakia, but by then the damage to the narrative has been done. (Which isn't to say that there aren't still missteps, but by this point they're the exception — particularly the overly detailed sex scenes that pop up from time to time — rather than the rule.) A reader willing to slog through the first half of the book will be rewarded, but I'm not entirely certain it was worth it.