Thursday, December 08, 2011

I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal 

When he starts his working life in the Golden Prague Hotel Ditie is told by his boss not to see anything and not to hear anything. A moment later his boss tells him to see everything and to hear everything.

And this is exactly what he does. The first half of the novel is related in an easy going style that is almost reminiscent of sitting in a bar listening to someone relate story after story. Hrabal in this sense in a born raconteur.

Throughout his early life Ditie rises up the ladder as he moves from hotel to hotel. While working in the Hotel Paris in Prague he serves the King of Ethiopia for which he is rewarded a blue sash and a medal.

The end of his tenure in the Hotel Paris coincides with the crises in Czechoslovakia over the Sudetenland. He fell in love with a German girl and because of this Czech nationalists conspire to isolate him then get him the sack.

Here the tone of the novel changes somewhat as Ditie recalls his dealings with the invaders. Looking back he realises that he is little better than a conspirator for example while he is marrying his German lover, his fellow countrymen are facing execution.

The humour returns as Ditie negotiates his way through the Soviet regime before finally reconciling himself to his fate. Ditie is somewhat of an idiot savant reminiscent of Good Soldier Svejk, so beloved of Czech literature.

Before starting this novel a reader should invest some time into researching the history of Czechoslovakia otherwise they risk becoming confused as Hrabal pushes the novel and its characters from one national crises to the next.

Darkly humorous and satirical the novel can be seen as a metaphor for Czechoslovakia from the mid 1930’s, through the German invasion and the end of WW2 to 1948 and the coming to power of the Communists.


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