Saturday, December 24, 2011

I Served the King of England: a match saved with his energetic whistle

A Christmas Eve entry in the series of excerpts from Bohumil Hrabal’s fantastic tale, where the unbelievable routinely comes true. At times the plot feels like a rickety framework on which to hang anecdotes such as the following…not that I’m complaining.

While in the prison for millionaires (more on this in the next post), Ditie reminisces about experiences and acquaintances. As the absurd becomes routine, Ditie’s memories focus on events that make sense to the (mildly) insane. This quote starts with a vision of Zdeněk when he was the headwaiter of the Hotel Tichota:
On our day off we’d gone for a walk, and in a grove of birches we saw a small man darting among the trees, blowing his whistle, pointing, holding the trees at arm’s length, and shouting, You’ve done it again, Mr. Říha. One more time and you’re out of the game. Then he ran back and forth among the trees again. Zdeněk found this amusing, but I couldn’t figure out what was going on. That evening Zdeněk told me the man was Mr. Šíba, the soccer referee. At the time, no one wanted to referee a Sparta-Slavia match, because the crowd then always insulted the referee, so Mr. Šíba said that if no one else wanted the job he’d referee the game himself. He went into training for it in this birch grove, running about sowing confusion among the birches, reprimanding and threatening Burger and Braine with expulsion, but mostly yelling at Mr. Říha, one more time and you’re out of the game. That afternoon Zdeněk took a bus full of inmates from an asylum for the mildly lunatic who had permission to go into the village because it was fair time, and they could ride on the merry-go-round and swing on the swings in their striped clothes and bowler hats. Zdeněk went into a pub and bought them a barrel of beer and a spigot, borrowed some half-liter glasses, and took them to the birch grove, where they broached the barrel and drank while Mr. Šíba ran among the birch trees blowing his whistle. The lunatics watched him for a while, then, figuring out what he was doing, they began to shout, cheer, and yell out the names of all the famous players for Sparta and Slavia. They even saw Braine kick Plániček in the head, and they jeered until Mr. Šíba threw Braine out of the game. Finally, after the referee had warned Říha three ttimes, there was nothing he could do but toss him out of the game for fouling Jezbera. The lunatics cheered, and by the time we’d polished off the barrel of beer they weren’t the only ones shouting, because I too saw the striped uniforms and the red-and-white uniforms instead of birch trees as the tiny referee Mr. Šíba blew his whistle. When it was over, the lunatics carried him off the playing field on their shoulders for doing such a beautiful job of refereeing. A month later Zdeněk showed me an article in the paper aabout Mr. Šíba, who had thrown Braine and Říha out of a game and thus saved the match with his energetic whistle.

(From the translation by Paul Wilson in the New Directions edition)

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