Sunday, August 20, 2017

I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal

Here, in the Hotel Tichota, 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.

Ditie is a waiter in one of the finest hotels in Prague.  The headwaiter tells him that the job of a waiter is to see everything and to see nothing--that is, to hone his powers of observation so that he might know each customer and serve them perfectly, but to be discreet about what he sees.  From his vantage point Ditie sees everything, coming to understand the wealth and power of sausage salesman, witnessing the childish love affair of the president of Czechoslovakia himself, but his keen eye is balanced by a boyish innocence and naivete.  Another waiter, who can anticipate everything a customer will order, always says his perspicacity comes from the fact that he once served the King of England.  And so Ditie, once decorated for his exceptional service to the visiting Haile Selassie, is able to say in moments of great vision, it is because I served the Emperor of Ethiopia.

I Served the King of England is a funny book, characterized by a lighthearted skewering of the wealthy as it follows Ditie from one hotel to another.  Its satirical tone is a step removed from reality, closer to something like a Wes Anderson movie than real life (and it wouldn't surprise me to learn that Anderson was thinking of this novel when he made The Grand Budapest Hotel).  But at the novel's midpoint, Ditie falls in love with a gym instructor who has accompanied invading Nazi forces, and the novel transforms from the picaresque into something more tragic and fraught.  Ditie is incensed by the way his hotelier superiors snub his fiancee, Lise, simply because she's German.  But at the same time, when he's prodded by Nazi doctors assessing whether he's "worthy of inseminating an Aryan vagina with dignity," he can't deliver a semen sample because he's too shaken by the image of his countrymen being executed by the Nazis.

Hrabal's version of occupied Czechoslovakia is a bloody farce.  His Nazis are obsessed with physical fitness; Ditie finds work at a ridiculous hotel designed to serve pregnant Teutonic women in preparation of the future master race.  He does something similar with the post-war Soviet occupation: Ditie emerges from the war as a hotel owner and a millionaire, but he's quickly thrown in prison for it.  He's delighted; in fact, Hrabal includes a funny scene where Ditie practically begs to be arrested simply so that the world will recognize his achievement and stature as a millionaire.  The prison itself is an extended joke, a kind of vacation resort where the millionaires rule the guards and the locked gate is unconnected to any wall.

I Served the King of England does a great job satirizing the place of Czechoslovakia in twentieth century history, but its most affecting scenes are smaller and more personal.  Ditie, disillusioned by the lack of satisfaction becoming a hotel owner and a millionaire have afforded him, takes a position mending roads in a remote mountain town.  Alone with a set of animals--a horse, a dog, a goat, and a cat--he is at last satisfied.  The townspeople find him after a snow storm in his old waiter's tuxedo and sash:

I invited them into the inn, and when they looked at me, I saw they were alarmed.  Where did you get that?  Who gave it to you?  How come you're dressed up like that?  And I said, Sit down, gentleman, now that you're my guests.  I used to be a waiter.  As though regretting they had come, they asked, What's that sash and that medal all about?  I said, I was given them many years ago, because I served the Emperor of Ethiopia.  And who are you serving now? they asked, still uneasy.  My guests, as you can see, I answered, and pointed to the horse and the goat, who had stood up and wanted out, butting their head against the door.  I opened it for them, and they filed out and walked down their corridor to the stable.  But my tuxedo and the sparkling medal and the blue sash upset the villagers so much that they just stood there.

I love this final image of Ditie, no longer dreaming about his future renown as a hotel owner, but resuming the life of service and humility, not for the powerful and the wealthy, but for a horse and a goat.  It's silly but also poignant, which is a great way of describing the power of I Served the King of England.

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