What I’m Reading: I Served the King of England

Bohumil Hrabal was a Czech writer who wrote during the Communist period.  His works were considered anti-revolutionary, I suppose.  In any case, I Served the King of England, which Hrabal finished in 1971, circulated in underground editions in the 1970s and was not formally published until 1983.

I Served follows the life of Ditie, who lives with his grandmother in a laundry as a boy and when he leaves home finds a job as a busboy at a hotel restaurant.  He learns the art of waiting tables from the maitre d’, an older man who’s seen it all, and even once served the King of England.  As time goes on, Ditie finds jobs at increasingly grand hotels, and finally he himself serves the King of Ethiopia at the finest hotel in Prague.  It is in these jobs that he develops twin obsessions with saving money and bedding women, a way to make up for his lack of stature (he’s under five feet) and his name (ditie means child in Czech).

During World War II, he woos and marries the German daughter of a high-ranking Nazi official, much to the disgust of his former colleagues in the hotel trade, who consider him a collaborator.  His wife and infant son die in the final days of the war.  With the money he’s earned during the war he’s able to buy a hotel of his own, only to see it taken by the Communists when they take charge of the country a few years later.  After a period in prison with a group of millionaires accused of exploiting the people, he accepts a series of forestry and road maintenance jobs in the remote mountainous areas of the country, where in the quiet and isolation he comes to terms with his life and what is truly important.

Hrabal’s writing is absolutely beautiful.  Let me give you a little bit of the book, so you can see how gorgeous it is.  In this section he is working in the prison kitchen where one of his daily jobs is to feed the pigeons.

“I had to come out of the kitchen on the stroke of two, and if for some reason the clock didn’t strike but the sun was out, I would go by the sundial on the wall of the church, and when I emerged, all four hundred pigeons would swoop down from the roof and fly straight at me, and a shadow flew with them, and the rustling of feathers and wings was like flour or salt being poured out of a bag.  The pigeons would land on the cart, and if they couldn’t find a place they would sit on my shoulders and fly around my head and beat their wings against my ears, blotting out the world, as though I were tangled up in a huge bridal train stretching out in front of me and behind me, a veil of moving wings and eight hundred beautiful blueberry eyes.”

This is one of my favorite parts, although the writing is this good on every page.  In its minute observation of details he reminds me quite a bit of Marcel Proust, with the difference that Hrabal is much faster to get to the point.  After all, the book is only a little over 200 pages and covers a lot of ground.  He (or at least Ditie) is also much concerned with the attractions of the female form and the pleasures it can provide, so you might say Hrabal is like a shorter, naughtier version of Proust, which in my mind is quite a recommendation.  I’m not sure this book is for everyone, but for those who are less interested in a rip-roaring plot and more in elegant, thoughtful writing with a strong erotic thread, this book is well worth seeking out.

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