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 ofI 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 glorifiedCenter 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!