I Served the King of England, was the third choice for the London-based book group I go along to monthly and which is hosted by Simon (Savidge Reads) and Kim (Kimbofo of Reading Matters). Unfortunately I’m not able to be at book group this week because of a work quiz for charity (which obviously I aim to win!) but these thoughts will be going live as the book group commences so I suppose I’ll be there in spirit.
In many ways, I Served the King of England is a novel of two halves. In the first part, Ditie (our waiter protagonist/commentator) is serving curious characters and climbing the hotel food chain, discovering his love of women along the way. Then we reach a turning point where he marries a German girl and is subjected to ‘scientific analysis’ to find out whether he – a Czech, is suitable enough to marry this ‘pure aryan’ angel and make babies for the new empire. Without giving too much away, in the second half of the book we see how Ditie accumulates wealth, and then loses it and feel the impact of the aftermath of the Second World War on the people of Czechoslovakia.
I can’t say that I’d ever heard of Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal when Claire (Paperback Reader) announced her choice, but heartened by her description of the blurb I ordered my copy on Amazon and was slightly abashed to see glowing commendations plastered on the cover from the likes of Milan Kundera and the Times Literary Supplement. So that certainly piqued my interest but did it live up to expectations?
The character of Ditie is funny by being so forthright about his lavicious desire for women and his observations of the strange hotel guests that he comes across. While Ditie is initiated into the world of sex via prostitution at “Paradise’s” and enjoys women as often as he can his character is not misogynistic in any way. In fact he was almost revered the female form – adorning laps and bodies with flowers to make them even more beautiful.
I did feel that Ditie had ‘small man’ issues! He often refers to his own size and seems self conscious about it. But he makes up for his size with a certain ambition and has an epiphany that money will bring him the things he desires. He learns to create a ‘big man’ persona by showing-off, for example tipping an extra 200 crowns, or throwing pocket change in the air for others to scrabble for.
“Almost no one could resist picking up those twenty-heller pieces and they’d butt one another’s heads like rams and squabble, but I’d fly on. It made me feel good, and I’d take another fistful of coins from my pocket and toss them down behind another group, and the money would jangle to the ground and roll off in all directions…”
He seems to have a knack for success and a likeability however, attracting father-figure types. Two influential characters are the salesman who sells salami cutters and loves to lay his money out on the floor, and the head waiter who has the special talent of predicting exactly what hotel guests will want for dinner. When Ditie asks him how he manages it, he always replies, ‘because I Served the King of England’. Later Ditie, has his own honour of having served the King of Ethiopia.
The first part of the book could be mistaken for being a light hearted expose something like Hotel Babylon (dare I say it!). The characters are amusing on their odd habits and tendency for excess. I loved the scene where Ditie serves at the Ethiopian banquet and describes the lengths they go to, to create an amazing feast. There are many rude expose’s of guests, including lecherous old men, and cognac fuelled parties – but I shall leave the details for you to find out yourselves!
However there is a real turning point when he meets a young German girl after protecting her against angry Czech’s. There is a sort of innocence about why they are being nasty to her, but later as the book progresses Ditie begins to understand the cold, dark aspects of the Nazi ideal of ‘The New Europe’. Although as usual, Ditie feels it most in his nether regions! He describes with horror the cold and scientific inspection process to ensure that his sperm is worthy of joining with his German wife’s egg. The ironic outcome of all of this is that Lise (his wife) later gives birth of a son who Ditie considers to be a cretin.
I Served the King of England gives the reader a side-long perspective of the effect of the Second World War. There aren’t huge tracts of commentary, because Ditie himself is sort of apart from it , but he uses everyday moments to suggest the underlying violence, for example where he views young men and women who have been injured at the front swimming:
“The cripples whose wounds were already slightly healed would like in the water or paddle gently about. Some others had no legs at all, just stumps. They moved their arms in the water like frogs, with their heads poking out of the blue lake, and they were handsome young men again, but when they swam to the edge, they would pull themselves out with their arms and crawl up the bank like turtles…”
I thoroughly enjoyed the expose nature of the first half of the book and you can’t help liking Ditie’s character because of his exuberance and easy-come-easy-go approach. The book beautifully contrasted scenes of excess before the war and the following devastation. I did get a little bit lost in some parts, but it wasn’t long before I found another entertaining bit to keep me busy. I Served the King of Englandis definitely a good read and, something to pick up when you fancy something a bit different.
Want to read other’s (varied!) opinions of the book?