Sunday, 24 January 2016

Book of the Month: I Served the King of England (Bohumil Hrabal)

I first became aware of the Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal a few years ago, when I was, as was my habit, then, browsing through the fiction section of the local Waterstone’s. Two of his novels were prominently on display, and, importantly, were available for the price of one. On the front page was endorsement by Julian Barnes, who had described Hrabal as a ‘superb writer’. The combination of a bargain and recommendation from Julian Barnes was too much to resist, and I bought both the novels. They were entitled Closely Observed Trains, and Loudness of Solitude. I added the two novels to the ‘to-read’ list and forgot about them. Sometime ago, in an Oxfam book shop, I came across another novel by Hrabal(The Little Town Where Time Stood Still) and bought it (£1.99, another bargain). I have yet to read this novel as well.
The only novel of Hrabal I have actually read is I Served the King of England, and I borrowed it from the local library.
The narrator of I Served the King of England is a diminutive waiter called Ditie (the meaning of which is ‘child’, apparently). Ditie’s ambition is inversely proportional to his size. He may be a munchkin, and he may be a waiter, but he does not want to remain a waiter (although he would, forever, remain pocket-sized). He wants to open his own hotel and become a millionaire. Ditie works in various hotels, starting with Golden Prague, then The Trichota, and finally Golden Paris. Along the way he meets some memorable characters, such as a co-waiter at hotel Trichota, called Zdenek. As the second world war looms and the country comes under German occupation, Ditie marries a German woman. While Czech patriots are being detained and hanged, Ditie serves the Nazis in various hotels and retreats. After the war he becomes rich by selling rare stamps his wife (who dies during the war) has stolen from the Jews who were sent to their deaths in the concentration camps. With the ill-gotten money Ditie finally achieves his ambition and opens a hotel—the Hotel in the Quarry—and becomes a millionaire. Ditie’s fortunes nosedive with the 1948 Communist takeover of the country, although he does not quite see it that way. As the novel ends Ditie has ended where he began all those years ago: penniless doing manual job in a remote corner of Sudetenland; and indescribably happy.
I Serve the King of England has a picaresque, anecdotal feel to it. The novel, as it moves from one section to the next, seems more like a shaggy-dog story with which some old codger might regale his listeners over a pint of ale (or whatever the preferred alcoholic beverage in Bohemia was in the middle part of the twentieth century). The novel is more than a story; it is a story of stories. And all the stories—whether sunny or dark (and they do get darker as the novel progresses and the Germans invade Czechoslovakia) are fantastical in their tone, be they of the bandmaster uncle of Zdenek, the headwaiter at the Hotel Tichota, or the bets between Ditie and the maĆ®tre de at the Golden Paris Hotel (who actually served the king of England). It is almost as if reality is filtered through a prism which adds a magical dimension to everyday, mundane, happenstances. The writing is not stream of consciousness, but it takes the form of apparently unorganized juxtaposition Ditie’s perceptions and images as he trundles through life. Yet, as in a collage, it somehow comes together to form a whole that is more than a sum of its part.
Ditie, the narrator and protagonist of I Serve the King of England, comes across, at the beginning of the novel, as a man who is unequal to the task of viewing the world without frivolity. He is a man incapable of looking underneath the surface of things. Ditie is a hedonist. He also emerges as a man, as the novel progresses, lacking in conscience. While working in Hotel Paris in the 1930s Ditie starts learning German. Soon, he is practically the only waiter left in the hotel who would be prepared to serve Germans. The reader is not surprised when a German woman, ‘as short as’ Ditie and with sparkling green eyes, falls in love with him; and Ditie, forever in search of pleasure, marries her. Soon Germans invade the country and the novel enters a darker phase. As the Czech patriots are tortured and Jews are boarding the trains to concentration camps, Ditie subjects himself to the deranged Nazi project of producing ubermensch Aryan children (and produces a son who is mentally retarded). After the war ends Ditie makes his million, but his ‘German past’ continues to haunt him, and he remains persona non grata amongst his old acquaintances. Slowly, but surely, Ditie turns away from his obsession about material wealth and achieves (you hope) inner peace.
I Serve the King of England (the title is a bit of a mystery, as the narrator and protagonist, Ditie, never serves the king of England; he serves Haile Selassie, though, the exiled king of Ethiopia; it is Ditie’s boss at the Hotel Golden Palace, a peripheral character in the novel, who has served the king of England) is a bawdy, rumbustious and, at places, dark satire, which is, at the same time, a commentary on the mid-twentieth century Europe. Via his apparently unscrupulous narrator—who is funny precisely because he refuses to take anything and anybody, least of all himself—seriously— Hrabal is commentating on the emptiness of our existence, which is comic in a macabre way. The language is combative, at times hyperbolic, at times alarming. An intriguing novel.