First published in 1971 as a typewritten edition, then finally printed in book form in 1989, I served the King of England is a comic novel telling the tale of Ditie, a hugely ambitious but simple waiter in a deluxe Prague hotel in the years before World War II. Ditie is called upon to serve not the King of England, but Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia. It is one of the great moments in his life. Eventually, he falls in love with a German woman athlete just as the Nazis are invading Czechoslovakia. After the war, through the sale of valuable stamps confiscated from the Jews, he reaches the heights of his ambition by building his own hotel. He becomes a millionaire; but with the arrival of communism, he loses everything. Sent to inspect mountain roads, Ditie comes to terms with his dreary circumstances, his place in history, and the inevitability of his death.
Well, yes, but it’s so much more. The height of Ditie’s ambition is his wish to be accepted and respected, especially by other hotel owners. He earns his million and develops his hotel visited by famous guests but never attains the acceptance or respect of other hotel owners. The owners visit his hotel but ignore Ditie and the hotel’s most fabulous attractions. Later, when millionaires are rounded up for jail, Ditie takes offense that he is excluded from their ranks. But the book is about so much more than his ambition. In the background lies the history of Czechoslovakia under Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and Edvard Beneš, the German occupation of Bohemia, German atrocities during World War II (including the destruction of Lidice), and the communist takeover early in 1948.
Everyone longs for something in the book but Ditie moves beyond trying to fulfill physical pleasures and seeks his place in the world, during life and death. He initially learns to “read” people as a pupil of the headwaiter at a Prague hotel, who perceptively understands each patron and his desires. When asked how he correctly analyzes a customer and knows so much in advance, the headwaiter responds “I served the King of England.” Ditie’s experience highlights how meaningless such an honor can be—after serving the Emperor of Ethiopia (accidentally at first, then by the Emperor’s choice) Ditie is suspected of stealing a gold spoon. His honor in ruins, he unsuccessfully attempts to hang himself.
Underneath the comic and dramatic events lies a dark aspect of man. Ditie does not evaluate his acquisition of wealth through the theft of valuable stamps from the Jews until bad things happen to him. He doesn’t think twice about abandoning his autistic son, the product of approved coupling by the Third Reich, until haunted by the boy’s talent. The millionaires’ prison receives Hrabal’s special scorn. Despite describing the behavior in the running of the prison as “real comedy, beyond Chaplin’s wildest imagination”, there lies a depressing aspect of man willing to forego freedom for a soft life. Ditie gives up his freedom because he wants to be accepted as one of the rich (this after his humiliation in order to marry a German woman). Hrabal’s scorn is balanced when Ditie’s work assignments take him to the border, where he begins to understand his place in history. Ditie earns more knowledge of human nature than the headwaiter claimed to have from serving the King of England. Ditie’s knowledge, though, comes through solitude and reflection and demonstrates that the unbelievable really can true.
The moment I looked out and saw, to my surprise, how high the snow had reached, I saw my cottage with the animals in it suspended on a chain hung from heaven itself, a cottage banished from the world and yet full to the brim, just like those mirrors with their buried and gorgotten images, images that could be summoned up as easily as the images I put in the mirrors, as the images I littered and lined my road with, covered now by the snow of the past, so that memory could find it only by touch, the way an experienced hand feels the pulse under the skin, to determine where life had flowed, flows, and will flow. And at that moment I began to be afraid, because if I died, all the unbelievable things that had come true would vanish, and I remembered that the professor of aesthetics and French literature had said that the better person was the one who expressed himself better. And I longed to write everything down just as it was, so others could read it and from what I said to myself paint all the pictures that had been strung like beads, like a rosary, on the long thread of my life, unbelievable beads that I had managed to catch hold of here as I looked out the window and marveled at the falling snow that had half buried the cottage. And so every evening, when I sat in front of the mirror with the cat behind me on the bar, butting her little head against my image in the mirror as though the image were really me, I looked at my hands while the blizzard roared outside like a swollen river, and the longer I looked at my hands—and I would hold them up as though I were surrendering to myself—the more I saw winter ahead of me, and snow. I saw that I would shovel the snow, throwing it aside, searching for the road, and go on, every day, searching for the road to the village, and perhaps they would be looking for a way to get to me too. And I said to myself that during the day I would look for the road to the village, but in the evening I would write, looking for the road back, and then walk back along it and shovel aside the snow that had covered my past, and so try, by writing, to ask myself about myself.
(From the translation by Paul Wilson in the New Directions edition)
For additional excerpts from the novel:
It was a magnificent sight
Worthy of inseminating an Aryan with dignity
A match saved with his energetic whistle
I’m going to skip reviewing the movie version of the novel (there are many changes from the text, often to good effect) directed by Jiri Menzel, other than to recommend it—very enjoyable.