Bohumil Hrabal's I Served the King of England is a beautiful, sparse, simply told story about a little man named Ditie. Ditie is a little man in the sense that he is small in stature. He is also little in the sense that he is merely a waiter, a little man who wanders blithely through the critical historical events that buffeted Czechoslovakia between 1935 and 1950 or so.
As the novel opens Ditie is a busboy at the Golden Prague Hotel. On his first day the hotel manager pulls him by the left ear to advise him to "remember, you don't see anything and you don't hear anything." The manager then pulls him by the right ear and tells him that he has "to see everything and hear everything." Ditie manages to learn how to accomplish this seemingly irreconcilable task.
Ditie is an ambitious man whose ambitions focus on acquiring two things: money and 'sensuous' experiences. His life is otherwise void of conscious thought or awareness. In many respects Hrabal portrays him vividly as something less than a complete human being. He earns money on the side selling frankfurters at the local train station. He gains extra tips from passengers ordering frankfurters from the train by fumbling for change long enough for the train to pull out. He decides to become a millionaire after walking into a room to see a portly Czech salesman rolling around on a floor covered with money. Ditie's hunger for sensual experiences is fueled after his first visit to the local brothel, the aptly named Paradise. After his first visit Ditie vows to make so much money that he can continue to explore the delights found there. Hrabal's description of Ditie's introduction to the lure of money and flesh is both comic and delightful.
Ditie leaves the Golden Prague Hotel and makes his way to the Hotel Tichota and then the Hotel Paris where he is promoted to waiter. It is there that he is taken under the wing of the headwaiter Mr. Sk°ivánek, who knows everything there is to know about being a top waiter. Whenever Ditie asks Sk°ivánek how he knows a particular fact Sk°ivánek replies - "because I served the King of England" at a banquet many years ago. Ditie later reaches one of his life's highpoints when he gets to serve the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. He then gets to answer "I served the Emperor of Ethiopia" whenever a younger waiter asks him for advice. The description of the banquet is another wonderful example of Hrabal's story telling ability.
It is while at the Hotel Paris that Ditie meets and falls in love with a young Sudeten German named Lise. As noted, Ditie is unaware or unfazed by the political events that are in the front of everyone else's mind. He is shocked that his fellow waiters ostracize him because of his relationship with Lise merely because of the troubles in the Sudetenland and the pending German invasion of Czechoslovakia. Ditie merely wants to become a millionaire and make love to Lise. Ditie is fired shortly before the German invasion.
The story takes us through Ditie's life during the war and up through the Communist accession to power in Czechoslovakia. At every step of the way these events swirl around Ditie without seeming to touch him in any real way. He spends a six month term in jail after the war for his collaboration with the Germans but that does not interfere with his plans to open up a spectacular hotel and become a millionaire. Ditie accomplishes this goal just around the time of the Communist accession to power in Czechoslovakia. Again, this does not seem to have any real impact on Ditie at all. In fact, when it is announced that the new regime will impose a horrendous tax on all millionaires Ditie eagerly awaits the validation that paying this tax will accord him. Instead he is horrified when an old colleague, a member of the Czech resistance who later becomes a party leader, whose life Ditie inadvertently saved from the Gestapo manages to obtain a tax exemption for Ditie. Horrified, Ditie marches to the local police with his bankbook to prove he is a millionaire. Of course all his assets are taken and he is sent to a work camp in the mountains.
It is only after Ditie has lost everything that he achieves some sense of his own humanity. It is a redemption that Ditie probably never knew he needed. As the story ends, Ditie wants nothing more than to be buried on the very top of a particular hill so that part of his remains make their way into some streams in Bohemia and the other part make their way into the Danube.
Although it is certainly easy to set out the events in I Served the King of England it is hard to convey the beauty and the comedy of Hrabal's writing. Hrabal's writing style is something of an anecdotal, stream of consciousness storytelling. It reminds me of the times I would sit in a bar, pub, or café in some far away place and come across someone who simply knew how to tell great stories. They might be a tad drunk, they might have told those stories to anyone willing to buy them a pint or too. But they are fun to listen to and sometimes they tell you a little bit about the storyteller and a little about yourself. Hrabal's I Served the King of England is one of those stories.
It is a delightful book.