Trying to decide what book to buy next fills me with all kinds of anxiety. Struggling last week, I googled “which Hrabal book should I buy?”, just to see what might come up, but it autocorrected to “which Hrabal book should I breastfeed?”
… not quite sure what Google is trying to suggest, but I have a suspicion Bohumil Hrabal would have thought it wonderful. I eventually settled, Google insinuations aside, on I Served the King of England, written in a single draft in 1971, circulated unofficially that year or soon after, and finally published semi-legally as a private edition of 5,000 copies in 1983 by the jazz section of the Czech Musicians’ Union.
I Served the King of England follows the life of the diminutive but deeply ambitious Ditie, as he works his way from teenage busboy to millionaire hotelier, only to lose his fortune as the Czech government falls to communism. The book is Ditie’s story, but it’s also very much the story of 20th Century Czechoslovakia, with appearances by the country’s first president Masaryk, Haile Selassie in exile following Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, Steinbeck during his 1960s tour of the Eastern Bloc; backgrounded by the German occupation of Bohemia, the Second World War, the massacre at and destruction of Lidice, the election of a Czech Communist government followed by the Soviet Communist takeover.
I Served the King of England is absurd in the way that all Hrabal books are absurd; boldly drawn, often foolish characters in situations that span the frequently thin line between the fantastical and the familiar – which only serves to make his social commentary all the more pointed.
I also learned that the ones who invented the notion that work is ennobling were the same ones who drank and ate all night long with beautiful women on their knees, the rich ones, who could be as happy as little children. I always used to think that the rich were damned, that country cottages and cozy little parlors and sour soup and potatoes were what gave people a feeling of happiness and well-being, and that wealth was evil. Now it seemed that all that stuff about happiness in poor country cottages was invented by these guests of ours, who didn’t care how much they spent in a night, who threw money to the four winds and felt good doing it…[they] would be watching our porter chop wood, and all these rich fellows thought the porter must be the happiest man in the world, and they would gaze wistfully at him doing work they had never done themselves, but if they’d had to chop wood, they would have been miserable. (p.68-69)
Ditie is very likeable, sensitive and astute, almost innocent in his outlook, but he’s morally a quite complex character. He abandons his disabled infant without a second thought, makes his fortune from valuable stamps stolen from murdered Jews with little compunction and only minor retrospective self-analysis, and aligns himself with the invading Germans for his own personal and social gain despite some pangs of conscience.
And I knew from reading the papers that on the very same day that I was standing here with my penis in my hand to prove myself worthy to marry a German, Germans were executing Czechs, and so I couldn’t get an erection and offer the doctor a few drops of my sperm. … I found myself looking at pornographic snapshots of naked people, and whenever I’d had this kind of picture in my hands before I’d always turn stiff right away, but now the more I looked at them the more I saw those headlines and the stories in the papers announcing that so-and-so and four others had been sentenced to death and shot, and there were more of them every day, new ones, innocent ones. And here I was standing with my penis in my hand and pornographic snapshots in the other… Finally a young nurse had to come in and after a few deft strokes of her hand, during which I didn’t have to think about anything anymore, she carried off two beads of my sperm on a piece of paper, and half an hour later they were pronounced first-class and worthy of inseminating an Aryan vagina with dignity. And so the Bureau for the Defense of German Honor and Blood could find no objection to my marrying an Aryan of German blood. With a mighty thumping of rubber stamps I was given a marriage license, while Czech patriots, with the same thumping of the same rubber stamps, were sentenced to death. (p. 140-141)
Ditie’s humanity – his desires, his ambition, his self-consciousness, his moral fallibility, his pride – make him one of the most satisfying characters I’ve read in a long time. His character development is also beautifully done – his growth is finely drawn, his moments of self-realisation neat without being improbable, his philosophising astute but without pretension.
On the way [home] I’d think things over, talk to myself, go over everything I’d said or done that day, and ask myself whether I’d said or done the right things. The only right things were the things I enjoyed – not the way children or drinkers enjoyed things, but the way the professor of French literature taught me, enjoyment that was metaphysical. When you enjoy something, then you’ve got it, you idiots, you evil, stupid, criminal sons of men, he would say, and he’d browbeat us until he got us where he wanted us, open to poetry, to objects, to wonder, and able to see that beauty always points to infinity and eternity. (p. 230)