I served the King of England, Bohumil Hrabal
Recommended by Elita Poulter. Elita is my sister, and another bibliophile. Elita and her husband John (represented later in this list) live in a beautiful village north of Glasgow with little TV reception, and Elita has certainly kept her reading up more than I have in recent years. I’m always fascinated by hour her bookshelves are full of very different books to mine, despite our shared upbringing – it is interesting how paths diverge with differing influences.
Elita’s recommendation of this book was as “a charming interesting wee book, slightly unlike most things I have read” and I would entirely concur. I finished reading about a week ago and have put off writing this whilst I collected my thoughts on it! Our narrator, Ditie, starts as a waiter in a Prague hotel, obsessed with the status of the guests and fascinated by his recent discovery of the delights of the local brothel. We discover relatively soon that Ditie himself does not, in fact, serve the King of England – that honour was bestowed on his mentor, and thus Ditie views him as an oracle unable to do wrong. For Ditie however, there is the alternative honour of serving Haile Selassi, the Emperor of Ethiopia. He is bestowed with a blue sash and medal, which come to define him, and ultimately feature in his final scene once he has become a caricature of his former self. We follow Ditie through his career at various hotels, with bizarre and comical situations aplenty, for the first half of the book, until the cataclysmic events of the mid-twentieth century overtake him. He falls in love with a German gym instructor from the newly annexed Sudetenland, and becomes a willing collaborator with the Nazi occupiers, enduring physical examinations to clear him for sexual union with his wife despite his blond hair and blue eyes. Their child has learning difficulties, and spends his days hammering nails into the floor, in an eerie precursor of the Allied bombs that will destroy their house. After serving in a Nazi hostel for recuperating soldiers, Ditie makes a fortune selling stamps that his wife stole from an occupied house in the war, and buys a hotel of his own back in (the then) Czechoslovakia. After the Russian occupation and the coming of communism he is arrested and imprisoned for being a millionaire, and after the prison is disbanded he eventually finds himself mending roads in the mountains of Sudetenland, and keeping house with a selection of animals, for whom he dons his blue sash to serve Christmas dinner.
I have deliberately left the paragraph above as one, as it mirrors Hrabal’s writing style – a riffle through the pages reveals page after page of very long paragraphs, densely packed, and at times it makes the reading very challenging – our narrator almost veers into stream of consciousness effect, and there were certainly pages I had to read again, or simply force myself to slow down. I’m not complaining, merely observing – I’m very aware that I read too fast at times, so it is good to be made to put the brakes on!
There are definite parallels between our narrator Ditie and Stevens in Remains of the Day (Book #1). Like Stevens with his employer, Ditie holds his customers in the highest regard (at least as far as the ones with impressive status or wealth are concerned). Our narrator is naive but sincere, consumed by the desire to tell an interesting story.
I chose to read this book at this stage due to the parallel themes of European conflict that also featured in Books 13 & 14, and the way different authors choose to address this subject never ceases to interest me. Somewhat like Bernofsky’s book, Hrabal allows his characters to be affected by the horrors of Europe’s darkest days, without those events becoming the dominant theme as it does in Zusak’s. Ditie’s acceptance of the embarrassment meted out by the Nazi doctors is subsumed by his love for his wife, and whilst he clearly collaborates with the invaders, he does so in a childish way, without thought for the future consequences or indeed the ideology.
Hrabal wrote this book in a single draft, and described his own writing style as “palavering” – a way of narrating a story, of inventing a narrator, in a process of continual renewal: which seemed to be constantly deferring its meaning. His palavering and gentle comedy lead us through the story, never quite reaching any conclusion that we may have been expecting, but nonetheless forcing us to reflect on the nature of relationships. The frequent refrain from Ditie is “how the unbelievable came true” – we are drawn along his bizarre, meandering path, with huge sympathy for our hapless narrator.
Ultimately, I agree with my sister (a wise choice!) – quite unlike anything I’ve read as well, but very enjoyable!