‘I Served the King of England’ by Bohumil Hrabal

IServedthekingofengland

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 288 pages; 2009. Translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson.

It’s not very often I read a book and feel completely ambivalent about it, but that’s how I felt when I finished Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England. I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it, but I enjoyed reading it and am glad I tackled it, even if I’m in no hurry to read the rest of Hrabal’s back catalogue.

The story, which is set in Czechoslovakia during the late 1930s, is narrated by Ditie, an ambitious busboy at the Golden Prague Hotel, who dreams of becoming a millionaire. He supplements his income by selling frankfurters at a railway station but cheats customers out of their change by waiting until they’ve boarded the train.

Then I’d fumble about for the change, and the fellow would yell at me to forget the coins and just give him the notes. Very slowly I’d start patting my pockets, and the dispatcher would blow his whistle, and very slowly I’d ease the notes out of my pocket, and the train would start moving, and I’d trot alongside it, and when the train had picked up speed I’d reach out so that the notes would just barely brush the tips of the fellow’s fingers, and sometimes he’d be leaning out so far that someone inside would have to hang onto his legs, and one of my customers even beamed himself of a signal post. But then the fingers would be out of reach, and I’d stand there panting, the money still in my outstretched hand, and it was all mine. They almost never came back for their change, and that’s how I started having money of my own, a couple of hundred a month, and once I even got handed a thousand-crown note.

With this kind of initiative, it’s no surprise that Ditie does, eventually, make his fortune.

He changes jobs several times, moving to more prestigious hotels where he’s exposed to more affluent guests and comes under the tutelage of a maître d‘ who once served the King of England. He has various affairs with different women, including prostitutes along the way. Indeed, he has a penchant for brothels, and spends a lot of his money on prostitutes whose laps he adorns with lavish displays of flowers — peony petals, daisies, sprigs of fir or mistletoe.

He later gets the chance to serve the Emperor of Ethiopia and is presented with a blue sash and a medal, the highpoint of his career as a waiter, but then almost loses the plot — and his life — when he is accused of stealing one of the gold teaspoons used at the event.

It’s these farcical moments which makes the novel a delight to read. Much of it is incredibly funny, and even in moments of potential tragedy, it’s hard not to laugh.

But when the Germans invade Prague the narrative takes on a new, sinister dimension, in complete contrast to all that has come before. Ditie falls in love with a German gym teacher and becomes a Nazi sympathizer. It takes awhile to come to grips with this strange turn of events, but it only serves as a taster to a whole series of weird and surreal twists in the narrative ahead, including Ditie’s imprisonment for being a millionaire.

I Served the King of England is a strange, witty novel about one man’s fantastic journey from rags to riches and back again.

The book was first published in 1971 but has recently been reissued by Vintage Classics in quite a striking purple cover designed by Japanese artist Mio Matsumoto.

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17 thoughts on “‘I Served the King of England’ by Bohumil Hrabal

  1. I understand your comment about being ambivalent.
    I bought this book as an impulse buy from a Waterstones promotion of foreign literature in 2006. Perhaps I came to it with false misconceptions, trying to compare to Milan Kundera or Joseph Roth, but for whatever reason, this book just really didn’t work for me. It never became alive and,although I enjoy interlinked short stories, this novel was too episodic.
    A disappointed reader.

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  2. Episodic is a good way of describing it, Carlton. In many ways it was a very straightforward, linear narrative, but completely surreal things would happen and you were never quite sure what was going to happen next or, indeed, what the point of it all was. Most of the time I kept thinking, where is this going?

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  3. Yes it was certainly an unusual structure, I really did feel as if I was thrown into something quite different in the second half but I’d never seen the character develop or understood his thoughts. An interesting read though!

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  4. That sounds like just the sort of book I enjoy. Have you read the Shoe Tester of Frankfurt? Its theme is similarly weird.
    Thanks for visiting mine. I’m glad you also enjoyed Legend of a Suicide

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  5. Strangely enough there’s a wikipedia entry for the film but not the book! I added it to my wishlist a few days ago because it sounded good. Thanks for the link and your recommendation – I really will have to watch it now.

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  6. I hope my review hasn’t put you off. Its not a terrible book, but its not a brilliant one either but its easy to read and provides a few laughs.
    And yes, the artwork is lovely. The artist’s website is worth a visit – loads of gorgeous images.

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  7. According to the wikipedia synopsis of the film it looks like they tell the story as a series of flashbacks as Ditie remembers certain aspects of his life, so I’m not sure how faithful it would be to the book. Would definitely be worth comparing the two, but I’d be worried that watching the film would cloud how you wrote your review of the book.

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  8. Episodic is a great way of describing the structure; it goes some way to explaining why we may have been a little disconnected from it.
    Thank you for mentioning the cover illustrator. I love the Vintage covers but unless I am concentrating on book covers for a particular post I often neglect to give the artist their dues.

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  9. I saw the film a few weeks ago — your description of the book matches up with my thoughts on the movie: episodic, both farcical and surreal, the lavish flower displays, the sinister turn… all there in the movie and leaving me somewhat ambivalent. I wouldn’t recommend it to everybody.

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  10. Well, the great thing is that nowadays most cover artists have their own websites, so they’re easy to track down on the web. Once-upon-a-time they were faceless and unrecognised.

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  11. I own a copy so I’ll definitely be reading this. Even if I didn’t own a copy I loved that quote, so funny.
    I wrote up his Closely Observed Trains on my blog. That too is a mix of the very funny and the fairly horrific. Perhaps that’s typical of Hrabal’s work.
    Interesting ambivalence, was it then that you liked the individual episodes but that for you the whole wasn’t greater than the parts?
    Love that cover.

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  12. Yes, I think it was very much a case of (some of) the individual episodes were really enjoyable, but taken as a whole the book felt too bitty, disjointed and inconsistent to elevate it to something really special. It’s got some very funny moments in it, though.

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