I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal

Well this was what I was supposed to be discussing at Book Group last night but as you will see from my post below I managed to not make it to Book Group, so I will have to be content with discussing it online instead.

This is only my second Czech novel; I have of course read Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being but other than that, Czech writing has never really been on my radar and I had certainly never heard of I Served the King of England before. Wikipedia soon helped me to discover that Bohumil Hrabal is a big cheese in Eastern Europe and a bit of a cult figure; there is an apparently ‘hilarious’ Czech film of the book as well if anyone is interested. I gather he is somewhat of a mix between Nick Hornby and Oscar Wilde to the Czechs. Interesting combination, one would think.

So after spying this in a charity shop (lucky find, eh?!) I scooped it up and began reading. It only took me a couple of days and was very easy to read; light, humorous in places, some interesting social history of the region and the people, and certainly a nice change from the slog that is The Children’s Book.

However, I didn’t love it. It lacked a heart, and while there were some serious points about the treatment of Eastern Europeans by the Nazis they were cloaked by an insincere and uneasy humour. It is, essentially, a book of two halves in this way. The first is about the protagonist, Jan Ditie, and his jobs as a waiter in various classy establishments in and around Prague. We are introduced to the many and varied characters he comes across, and their foibles and sayings are very amusing and entertaining to read about. The phrase ‘I Served the King of England’ comes from a Head Waiter Jan works with in his second job, who knows everything about everyone and is the perfect waiter, seemingly solely because he served the King of England one time. Jan learns all of his skills from this Head Waiter and while under his command receives a medal from the Emperor of Ethiopia who he serves personally at a dinner. This goes on to become Jan’s own raison d’etre – ‘and I knew this because I served the Emperor of Ethiopia’ and so and so forth ad nauseum. This half of the book is breezy and funny and the characters are very well observed and described. I enjoyed this section quite a bit.

But then the tone changes and it becomes boring and a bit confused. Jan marries and has a child and then the war happens and his life changes because he becomes a millionaire and has his own hotel. However, this is taken from him under the Nazi regime and he is interned in a camp for millionaires which is actually a glorified Center Parks by the sound of it, and then he ends up all philosophical in a cabin in some woods somewhere, though by this point I had actually ceased to care.

It’s very Eastern European, and if you’ve read a few Russian novels you will know what I mean by that. Very philosophical, very the real meaning of life, truth, the universe, and so on. It also has a very dark humour that I presume is their way of dealing with the catastrophic way their countries and countrymen have been treated over the course of the 20th century. That’s fine if it works for them, but I found it difficult to read blasé descriptions of Nazi Aryan selection camps and people killed in bombs etc with no real sense of injustice or hurt behind the words. I thought it was all a bit soulless really, and not very funny at all. It was boring me by the end and I finished it with a feeling of disappointment and wonderment that this could have become such a classic, and also whether I had managed to completely miss the point, as everyone else seems to love it so much. Perhaps it’s simply because I’m not Czech.

So not really a book I would wax lyrical about or recommend to my friends, but I am glad I read it, as I would never have picked it up if it hadn’t have been for the book group I never made it to, and it has broadened my knowledge of Eastern European literature. In its defence, it is supposed to be ‘untranslatable’ as Hrabal wrote in his own version of colloquial Czech called Hrabalstina which I would imagine is very difficult to get across in another language. Much like trying to mimic a Cockney accent in French, I suppose. Therefore this might just be one of those unfortunate instances of the essence of a book being lost in translation.

I am looking to forward to hearing the thoughts of the other Book Group members! I am so sad I didn’t get to meet you!

Oh, and a The Children’s Book update…am just over half way through…sigh….but still going! And my parcel I went to collect (see whiny post below) wasn’t my Sensation Season books from amazon but was some copies of Richard Yates books sent by the lovely Fiona at Vintage so that I can do a wee Richard Yates season on the blog…and duplicate copies too, for a giveaway! So keep your eyes peeled for that in the near future, all of you who want to read Revolutionary Road and all of you who have read Revolutionary Road and fancy exploring more of Yates’ work. I am very excited about this so I hope some of you will be too!

Finally, I’ve just got back from a staff preview of the new Maharajas exhibition at the V&A…it’s all about the Royal courts of India from the 18th to the 21st century and is absolutely fascinating – I highly recommend a visit. It has a full size model of an elephant in it, as well as a gorgeous vintage Rolls Royce, and tons of incredibly sparkly and impossibly expensive jewellery! If you’re interested in coming then do give me an email, I get two free tickets and I won’t be using them as I just waltz in with my pass so I’m happy to send them to someone who wants to visit as the tickets aren’t cheap!

Have a good weekend everyone…hopefully I would have finished The Children’s Book by the end of mine!
About these ads

8 comments

  1. I'm sorry you weren't able to make it last night – I would have loved to meet you! I think we shared opinions on this book and look forward to discussing books with you in the future!

  2. Thanks Jackie! I was so disappointed. But there will be another time! I look forward to reading your comments on this – I wasn't bowled over and I was worried I was the only one but it appears I'm not!

  3. I commend you for reading the sort of book you normally wouldn't grab from the shelf. R is Ukrainian and whenever our daughter would be in a 'mood' I would blame Eastern European broodiness as the culprit. It's in the genes.

  4. I read this years and years ago, but I'm afraid it's all a blur now. I think it's good to read outside your comfort zone sometimes if only to appreciate other books even more. Have a nice weekend too. And I would love to visit the V&A for that exhibit–if only I could click my heels together and wish myself there! :) Any chance that you might post photos? Or perhaps picture taking isn't allowed in the galleries (will have to see if they offer an online view–thanks for the heads up).

  5. I wouldn't say it was soulless but creating black humour out of abhorrent history although I can see your point. I have a very sick sense of humour (although I am a very sensitive soul) so it appealed to that part of me; it did irk me though that he had no personal reaction to the part where he couldn't find the head.

  6. Firstly, love the image you have on the left (I am a huge fan of Pre-raphaelite images and got very excited about the recent Waterhouse exhibition at the RA. Who is this one by?Secondly, what a shame you didn't find everyone. I enjoyed your review – I know what you mean about the way that the war was kind of described in an offhand way. I'm in two minds as to whether it was flippant as you say or whether it was sort of dark by virtue of being left to the imagination a bit. Fingers crossed we'll see you next month!

  7. Darlene – Hehe! Eastern European moodiness is so true – I used to work with a Hungarian and she was so moody! I got offended until she explained it was her East European temperament!Danielle – Exactly, I think reading outside of your comfort zone is a good thing. It helps you to find some new treasures as well as weed out books you don't like. I don't think I can post photos but I am more than happy to mail you the accompanying brochure. I'll try and remember to give you an email and let you know when it comes out – it should be out this week.Claire – Yes, that head part was weird and upset me a bit! I think your reaction to this book would depend on your sense of humour, definitely.NovelInsights – It's Charles Edward Perigini, Girl Reading – it's in the collection of Manchester Art Gallery. I love Pre Raphaelites too. Sadly I missed the Waterhouse exhibition but I would have loved to see it.Yes I am still in two minds myself! Hopefully I will get to come along to Book Group again and meet you in person!

  8. Eastern European literature, especially within the last 60 years or so, is phenomenal in its complicated simplicity.
    If Hrabal is your choice then do not forget to read “The Guinea Pigs” by Ludvik Vaculik. A great book.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s