Friday, 2 October 2009

I Served the King of England

This month's book for Savidge Reads' and Kimbofo's book group was I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal. This Czech book in translation was my choice. I first came across Hrabal six years ago when I took a Slavonic literature course as an elective at University and read his novella Closely Observed Trains; I would like to reread it as all I can remember of the somewhat bizarre book is that Milos, the apprentice signalman, had attempted suicide after the humiliation of his first sexual experience. I Served the King of England had been on my radar at that time but I promptly forgot about it until coming across it whilst working in a bookshop last Christmas and then it featured in the comedy section of The Guardian's 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read. The entry for the book, written my Joanna Hines, caught my imagination:

Ditie, the hero of Hrabal's comic masterpiece, learns early in his career to keep his ears open without hearing, keep his eyes open without seeing. From busboy he progresses to become a waiter in a Prague hotel, and then a millionaire with a hotel of his own; but his personal parameters remain those of the small man. Building on the rambling style of Hasek's Svejk, the novel's humour and bathos achieve universal significance in the contrast between Ditie's meagre resources and his eternally grandiose ambition.

I was curious whether the comedy would translate and it did, albeit perhaps not as well as it may have in the original Czech (although credit to the translator Paul Wilson who has translated Hrabal who, the Czechs say, is "untranslatable"). The important thing to take note of from the synopsis above is "his personal parameters remain those of the small man" because Ditie -which means "child"- is a small man, complete with small man issues; an interesting hero in himself but especially with the backdrop of WWII where megalomaniac dictators with their own small man issues wreaked horror on the "sub"-man. Ditie is reminded by his first manager that as a busboy "you don't see anything and you don't hear anything ... But remember too that you've got to see everything and hear everything". Hrabal, via Ditie, then shows us everything in an overly descriptive first part of the novel. Ditie's escapades -because they can only really be called that- are ludicrous and at times hilarious. In his first job Ditie saves his money to visit Paradise's, the local brothel, so he can have his first sexual encounter. The novel becomes quite lewd, surprisingly so, at this point and Ditie lavishes a cast of prostitutes with visits, attention, and a lap-full of flowers (hence the fabulous cover of the newly re-issued edition from Vintage Books).

Described accurately as a "novel of two halves" by Polly of Novel Insights, the first part of I Served the King of England is a lighthearted expose of the hotel industry with some very amusing -and detailed- descriptions of the tricks of the trade; the second half, however, takes on a far more serious subject matter albeit still with an irreverent tone. The juxtaposition of the horrific German occupation of the now Czech Republic and the subsequent Blitzkrieg, the unbelievable coming true, with the comically farcical is superbly done. Hrabal injects black humour into the unimaginably abhorrent and I found myself chuckling uproariously at the most shocking of moments, that in a straight novel would be far from humorous (moments that in The Glass Room by Simon Mawer were uncomfortably haunting). To share Hrabal's achievement and to demonstrate the style of writing, I have shared a scene where Ditie goes for German testing to see if he is fit to mate with an Aryan woman:

And so while execution squads in Prague and Brno and other jurisdictions were carrying out the death sentence, I had to stand naked in front of a doctor who lifted my penis with a cane and then made me turn around while he used the cane to look into my anus, and then he hefted my scrotum and dictated in a loud voice. Next he asked me to masturbate and bring him a little semen so they could examine it scientifically because, as the doctor said in his atrocious Egerlander German--which I couldn't understand, though I got the gist well enough--when some stupid Czech turd wants to marry a German woman his jism had better be at least twice as good as the jism of the lowliest stoker in the lowliest hotel in the city of Cheb.

Ditie is then presented with pornography and when that doesn't arouse him is masturbated by the nurse. Hrabal certainly knows how to create an image and one that doesn't jar but does make an impact in its ridiculousness.

As a group we were mainly ambivalent towards this book and even after discussion most of us could not make up our minds what we felt about it; none of us hated it and Linda even loved it and saw qualities in it that many of us missed but we were not jumping up and down eagerly in our seats or agreeing that it is a novel that everyone must read. I am glad however that I have read it as I had been meaning to and in reading the very informative introduction by Adam Thirwell, I appreciate it the more. I will leave you with one passage of his, where he certainly sees the profound in I Served the King of England:

A sense of humour, in Hrabal, is really a sense of proportion: the ability to diminish the things of the world to their true and miniature size. This, in the end, is the real way to be a hedonist: to be content with how small the world's pleasures are, to be happy with humiliation. But this sense of proportion is so rare.
Ditie's diminutive stature, which leads him to try to impose himself on the world in such grandiose ways, is really metaphysical. It is universal. For everyone it is miniature, but with grandiose ambitions. So everyone is laughable.


Rachel (Book Snob) said...

I am so sad I didn't get to meet you Claire! Next time!

I have just posted my review so you can see my opinions there but I very much agree it was a book of two halves and frankly I didn't enjoy it that was funny at first but then I just found it a bit slow and dull and heartless.

It just wasn't for me! You have put it very eloquently as to why it doesn't quite work, and I am glad everyone else felt quite ambivalent about it as I thought I might have missed something!

Darlene said...

Your book choice would have promoted quite a range of topics for dicussion!

Paperback Reader said...

Rachel, definitely next time!

I'm sorry that the book wasn't for you, that indeed it wasn't for most of us, but it was a strange choice of mine. Off to read your review momentarily.

Darlene, not exactly... I thought it was a good choice but we weren't engaged enough with it for an empassioned discussion!

Anonymous said...

Firstly I just want to say thank you for chosing such an unusual book and for making me read my first Czech author who I may try again one day.

It wasnt for me but it was which is what vexed me with it I think (love the word vex) and I think somehow it made it very hard to put into words what I thought of the book.

I think because no one despised it and only one person loved it it made the discussion harder which is a very interesting thing in itself. Glad I read it though!

Paperback Reader said...

Simon, I would be inclined to read more Czech literature now than just this and the Kundera that I've read so far.

I like that our choices so far have been classics that we may not have read and literature in translation that none of us have; it is curious and coincidental. The ambivalence that most of us felt whilst reading it was difficult to articulate and easier to write I thought. I too love the word "vex"!

Unknown said...

I'd like to second Simon's thanks for choosing this book. It wasn't the best book in the world, but I am pleased that I've read it and hope to read Kundera soon.

I hope I can think of a book which makes for a good discussion. The pressure is terrible - are you relieved it is over or did you enjoy choosing?

Paperback Reader said...

Jackie, I enjoyed choosing but sad that we (myself included) didn't enjoy it more. I do know what you mean about wanting a book that makes for good discussion but it's difficult to know without having read the book first which, of course, defeats the purpose! I'd put your thinking cap on - you're next to choose, aren't you?

Unknown said...

I think Hattie is next to choose - or has she missed too many groups? I'm not sure! I have a few ideas now - I just have to make a final desicion. I can't decide whether to read it first and see if it is actually any good.

I don't think it is bad for us not to have loved the book - as long as it makes for a good discussion I don't mind not liking it.

kimbofo said...

I thought it was an interesting choice, not a bad one. Having flicked through it again tonight, to write my review, I found myself chuckling at bits I had forgotten. Maybe it's one of those books you need to read twice to fully appreciate?

I know I said he was the first Czech writer I'd read, but how could I forget Franz Kafka?? I loved The Trial when I read it about 20 years ago!

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised that you guys felt somewhat ambivalent about the book at the group in the end as it seems to have generated a wide range of impressions from people. I thought this was a good choice, something I would never have picked up otherwise!

Paperback Reader said...

Kim, I think it is one that resonates some once you have finished and one I have found myself thinking about.

Jackie, I think Hattie has missed two in a row so you're next. I would just go with it as half the fun of choosing is the not knowing.

I read Kafka's "Metamorphosis" earlier this year and bought The Trial a few months ago and hope to reach it soon! I forgot that he was Czech; his writing is incredibly accessible too.

Polly, I'm glad that you all appreciated the choice; it is great to read something that we normally would not.

The ambivalence was good as we discussed why we weren't sure if we liked it or not and examined the potential reasons behind it.