Wednesday, December 14, 2011

I Served the King of England: It was a magnificent sight

I wanted to pass on this extended quote from Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England because it captures the element of his comic madness. Ditie, a (short in stature) waiter-in-training at the Golden Prague Hotel and Restaurant, asks a traveling salesman representing a tailoring firm from Padubice why he cuts strips of parchment with measurements written on them for the suit jacket. The salesman tells Ditie about the “revolutionary technique” his
boss invented, the first in the republic, maybe even in Europe and the whole world, and it’s for officers and actors and the kind of person who doesn’t have a lot of time on his hands, like yourself, sir. I just measure them and send the measurements to the workshop, where they take those strips and sew them together on a kind of tailor’s dummy with a rubber bladder inside it that’s gradually pumped up until the parchment strips are filled out, and then they’re covered with fast-drying glue so they harden in the shape of your torso. When they remove the bladder, your torso floats up to the ceiling of the room, permanently inflated, and they tie a cord to it, the way they do to babies in the maternity wards so they won’t get mixed up, or the way they tag the toes of corpses in the morgues of the big Prague hospitals. Then when your turn comes, they pull your torso down and try the dresses, the uniforms, the suit coats, or whatever’s been ordered, on those mannequins, and they sew and refit, sew and refit, unstitching the seams and sewing them again, without a single live fitting. Since it’s all done on this inflated stand-in, of course the coat fits like a glove, and we can mail it out postage-free or C.O.D. with confidence, and it always fits, unless the client gains or loses weight. If that happens, the salesman can simply come again and measure how much you’ve lost or gained, and then the mannequin is taken in or let out at the appropriate places, and the clothes are altered accordingly, or a new coat or tunic is made. And a client’s mannequin is up there among several hundred colorful torsos, until he dies. You can find what you’re looking for by rank and profession, because the firm has divided everything into sections—for generals and lieutenants colonels and colonels and captains and lieutenants and headwaiters and anyone who wears formal dress—and all you have to do is come and pull on the right string and the mannequin comes down like a child’s balloon and you can see exactly how someone looked when he last had a jacket or a tuxedo made to measure or altered.

How does Ditie react to this absurdity? With even more silliness:

All this made me long for a new tuxedo made by that company, and I was determined to buy one as soon as I got my waiter’s papers, so that I and my mannequin could float near the ceiling of a company that was certainly the only one of its kind in the world, since no one but a Czech could have come up with an idea like that. After that I often dreamed about how I personally, not my torso, was floating up there by the ceiling of the Pardubice tailoring firm, and sometimes I felt as though I were floating near the ceiling of the Golden City of Prague restaurant.

Ditie orders a tuxedo from the tailoring firm and goes to pick up the suit in person, asking where his

inflated figurine, my torso, was. The boss of the place was as short as I was, and seemed to understand that I wanted to be taller, and how important being up there among the other torsos near the storeroom ceiling was for me, so he took me there to see it. It was a magnificent sight. Up near the ceiling hung the torsos of generals and regimental commanders and famous actors. Hans Albers [the German actor] himself had his suits made here, so he was up there too. A draft from an open window made the torsos move about like little fleecy clouds in an autumn wind. A thin thread bearing a name tag dangled down from every torso, and the tags danced gaily in the breeze, like fish on a line. The boss pointed at a tag with my name and address on it, so I pulled it down. It looked so small, my torso. I almost wept to see a major general’s torso beside mine, and Mr. Beránek the hotelkeeper’s, but when I thought of the company I was in I laughed and felt better.

So far the plot is almost an afterthought, a loose framework for yarns like this one. The spirit of Hrabal’s anecdotes leads the reader to accept the quirky and fantastic as possible.

(Quotes from the translation by Paul Wilson in the New Directions edition)

For another take on the fantastic as possible, watch this scene from the movie version under Jirí Menzel's direction (which takes some liberty with the book, mostly by understating the waiter's reaction):


AB said...

This is on my list to read, it sounds wonderful. I love the image of the tailors's dummies floating on the ceiling.

Dwight said...

It is wonderful, and the book is full of great images like that. Enjoy!