“He answered, pulling himself up to his full height, Because I served the King of England. The King? I said, clapping my hands. You mean you actually served the King of England? And the head waiter nodded his head in satisfaction.”
The renowned Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997) has lived through the most tumultuous periods in his country's history, first enduring the occupation of Nazis and later the Soviets. Although Mr. Hrabal finished a degree in law his primary interest was at writing poems. In the post-war years, he was part of an underground literary club where he would read aloud his poems, and later his stories. His earlier novels – Dancing Lessons for the Advanced Age & Closely Observed Trains – were published in the mid-1960s, the later turning into acclaimed movie by Jiri Menzel in 1966. In 1970s, after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Hrabal was often at odds with the communist government, forcing him into a period of silence. In 1971, the author had type-written his novel I Served the King of England, but it was only in 1983 the novel was officially published, and the English translation by Paul Wilson was done in the year 1990 (most of Hrabal’s works were translated into English after the Soviet Union collapse).
Paul Wilson says this translation was his response to Czechs claim that 'Bohumil Hrabal is untranslatable'. And he seems to have done a good job, preserving the writer’s unrestrained, flowing style (full of long sentences and page-length paragraphs) which allows us to closely comprehend his central character’s stream-of-consciousness. The chief characteristic of Hrabal’s writing is his ability to focus on the surreal and comic oddities within ordinary human life (I had previously read only one Hrabal’s novel although I have seen all the faithful movie adaptations by Czech film-maker Jiri Menzel). I Served the King of England tells the picaresque story of Ditie, a short, young waiter with prodigious carnal appetite. Divided into five chapters, Hrabal describes Ditie’s sexual awakening, naïve dreams, small victories, and resilience with a mix of farce and poignance that eventually comes off as the intimate portrait of an individual in a particular time and place.
Fifteen-year-old Ditie starts his adventures as a busboy in the Golden Prague Hotel. Like every other adolescent caught in the space between reality and dream, Ditie desires for sex and money. He spends the generous tips he receives on prostitutes. He also likes decorating the naked lap of the prostitute with flowers. Ditie means ‘child’, and much of his action reflects the innocence and absurdity of a child. Ditie is enthralled by ludicrous innovations of the era. He gushes about the salami slicer, and later he marvels at a tailoring firm’s allegedly revolutionary fitting technique. Ditie uses such absurd thoughts as a sort of escapism to forget his own strangeness and isolation within the community. He works in various hotels, raises to the position of waiter, but the jealousies of fellow-workers often keeps him on the move.
At one hotel, Ditie is trained by the esteemed head-waiter who has served the King of England, and subsequently Ditie himself serves the Emperor of Ethiopia, who provides him a medal for the service. The story takes a surprising turn when Ditie falls in love with a Nazi woman named Lise (commander of the nursing corps), whom he marries after intense examination of the Reich authorities on whether his sperm is worthy enough of impregnating a 'Teutonic Aryan vagina' and bring to the world a race of ‘New Man’. Labeled as a German sympathizer and wholly ostracized by the Prague community, Ditie now works in a hotel in the mountains and lives in a ‘breeding station’ which the Nazis has established to develop a ‘pure race’ of humans. Naturally, the war and the subsequent occupation of Soviets drive him to reach rock bottom, even though he finds opportunities in the harshest conditions; amidst laughter and despair, he tries to live life to the fullest.
|A still from Jiri Menzel's movie adaptation|
Bohumil Hrabal’s flights into magical realism avoid the novel from becoming just another uniformly bleak story on the modern East European history. Hrabal shows greater sympathy for Ditie, an ignorant comman man whose naïve enthusiasms and tall dreams deflate alongside the broader inhumanity. By turns sad and hilarious, Hrabal’s minuscule, insecure protagonist learns how every one of us and our grandiose ambitions is rendered tiny in front of the death’s inevitability and volatile historical forces (which always make the ‘unbelievable come true’). Yet it seems like Ditie who served the Emperor of Ethiopia and trained by the man who served the King of England, one mustn’t allow their indomitable spirit to be crushed.
P.S.: The novel was adapted into a movie by Jiri Menzel in 2006 who also turned Bohumil Hrabal’s novel Closely Observed Trains (1965) and short stories -- The Snowdrop Festival (1978), An Advertisement for the House I Don't Want to Live in Anymore (1965) which was adapted as 'Larks on a String' -- into feature-length movies.Mr. Hrabal had also co-wrote the script of Menzel's 1981 comedy 'Cutting It Short'