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I Served the King of England by Bohumil…
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I Served the King of England (1971)

by Bohumil Hrabal

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Showing 1-5 of 11 (next | show all)
‘I Served the King of England’ starts off humorously, with the narrator, a young hotel busboy, describing various guests and how he makes money on the side by selling frankfurters at the railroad station and conveniently not having change for their big bills. However, it quickly starts meandering with a style that feels like one anecdote after another concatenated together as he moves from one hotel to the next. There is some sex thrown in here and there, starting with him early on discovering an “aim for life” after visiting Paradise’s, a local brothel, but it doesn’t feel all that honest, such as the time prostitutes find themselves so aroused after being poked and prodded by a bunch of rich old men that they need him to skillfully ‘finish what they began’. (ugh)

It takes awhile to get there, but the third and fourth chapters (out of five total) are good, when the Nazis take over the Czechoslovakia and the narrator finds himself in love with a German woman, then subjects himself to a humiliating physical examination before being permitted to marry her. Tellingly, their son, supposedly a part of the future superior Aryan race, is mentally retarded, and this portion of the book ends with a very moving scene.

It is interesting to read Hrabal’s expression of Czech zeitgeist in the 1970’s, having endured the Nazis and then the Soviets, and in the case of the narrator, having guilt for having profited in WWII from plunder taken from the Jews, and yet, through it all, keeping a lightness, and a madcap zaniness about them. It’s an easy book to rate for me though. Four stars for chapters three and four, and two and a half stars for the rest of it.

Quotes:
On the beauty of nature:
“It wasn’t a small hotel, as I’d been expecting, but a small town or a large village surrounded by woods, with hot springs in the forest and air so fresh you could have put it in a cup. All you had to do was turn and face the pleasant breeze and drink it in freely, as fish breathe through their gills, and you could hear the oxygen mixed with ozone flowing through your gills, and your lungs and vital parts would gradually pump up, as though earlier, somewhere down in the valley, long before, you’d got a flat tire, and it was only now, in this air, that you’d got it automatically pumped back up to a pressure that was safer and nicer to drive on.”

On love:
“We looked at each other as though we were both naked, and again that white film came over her eyes, the kind of look women get when they are ready to cast aside the last shred of inhibition and let themselves be treated any way that seems right at the moment, when a different world opens up, a world of love games and wantonness. She gave me a long, slow kiss in front of everyone, and I closed my eyes, and as we kissed, our champagne glasses tilted in our fingers and the wine slowly spilled out onto the tablecloth, and all the guests were silent.”

On having only a few moments left before saying goodbye; this as the German soldiers were about to leave for the Russian Front:
“Only now have I got to the core of it, that what made these people beautiful was knowing that they might never see each other again. The New Man was not the victor, loud-mouthed and vain, but the man who was humble and solemn, with the beautiful eyes of a terrified animal. And so through the eyes of these lovers – because even married couples became lovers again with the dangers of the front hanging over them – I learned to see the countryside, the flowers on the tables, the children at play, and to see that every hour is a sacrament. The day and the night before the departure for the front, the lovers didn’t sleep, but they weren’t necessarily in bed either, because there was something more here than bed: there were eyes and special feeling, like seeing a sad, romantic play or movie in a large theater or movie house. I also learned that the closest that one person can be to another is through silence, an hour, then a quarter-hour, then the last few minutes of silence when the carriage has arrived, or sometimes a military britzska, or a car. Two silent people rise to their feet, gazing long at each other, a sigh, then a final kiss, then the man standing in the britzska, then the man sitting down and the vehicle driving off up the hill, the final bend in the road, the waving handkerchief.” ( )
1 vote gbill | Jan 21, 2016 |
Book Riot's Read Harder Challenge: A Book By a Person Whose Gender is Different From My Own ( )
  kalbach | Apr 1, 2015 |
There is an amazing essay about this book by James Wood in the London Review of Books, most everything you need to know; however I first learned about it after reading an excerpt in Lapham's Quarterly (Food) concerning the banquet for the Emperor of Ethiopia. There are a lot of set pieces like this scene with the fish inside the turkey inside the gazelle inside the camel, as Wood says "anecdote without end," which can be great fun or greatly irritating, depending your mood. Fortunately if a story doesn't grab you, a new one comes along soon enough. I just watched the movie after the book and it's beautiful, it makes the story more coherent and adds new dimension as a work of art on its own. ( )
  Stbalbach | Jan 24, 2013 |
2.5 stars, as there's half a very good book here, and half a very bad one. To the book's detriment, the majority of the very bad book is all front-loaded. The first two (out of five) sections, which meander with no real purpose, could easily be excised entirely with little to no damage to the book. A reader who makes it all the way to the end wonders if Hrabal himself realized the weakness of the first two sections, as a passing comment by Ditie, the narrator, disparages how the book began.

Things pick up once World War 2 starts, with the annexation, followed by liberation and rise of Communism in Czechoslovakia, but by then the damage to the narrative has been done. (Which isn't to say that there aren't still missteps, but by this point they're the exception — particularly the overly detailed sex scenes that pop up from time to time — rather than the rule.) A reader willing to slog through the first half of the book will be rewarded, but I'm not entirely certain it was worth it. ( )
  g026r | Apr 24, 2012 |
Acquired via BookCrossing 28 May 2011 (Hare and Hounds meetup)

A kind of fantasy set in pre-WWII and wartime Czech Republic. This could obviously be read at many different levels, and I just as obviously missed a lot of the satirical element, but it was an interesting and amusing (if that's the word) story in its own right (if a little rude!) and I didn't mind the animal violence as much as usual as it was clearly metaphorical. My attention did wander a little towards the end, but overall a good and unusual read. MUCH better than Unbearable Lightness of Being!! ( )
1 vote LyzzyBee | Dec 7, 2011 |
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» Add other authors (27 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Hrabal, Bohumilprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
賢一, 阿部翻訳secondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jähn, Karl-HeinzÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mercks, KeesTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Paul WilsonTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Varga, GyörgyTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vermeulen, RickCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wilson, PaulTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Zgustová, MonikaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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When I started to work at the Golden Prague Hotel, the boss took hold of my left ear, pulled me up and said, 'You're a busboy here, so remember, you don't see anything and you don't hear anything.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 081121687X, Paperback)

In a comic masterpiece following the misadventures of a simple but hugely ambitious waiter in pre-World War II Prague, who rises to wealth only to lose everything with the onset of Communism, Bohumil Hrabal takes us on a tremendously funny and satirical trip through 20th-century Czechoslovakia.

First published in 1971 in a typewritten edition, then finally printed in book form in 1989, I Served the King of England is "an extraordinary and subtly tragicomic novel" (The New York Times), 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. It is one of the great moments in his life. Eventually, he falls in love with a Nazi woman athlete as the Germans are invading Czechoslovakia. After the war, through the sale of valuable stamps confiscated from the Jews, he reaches the heights of his ambition, building a hotel. He becomes a millionaire, but with the institution of communism, he loses everything and is sent to inspect mountain roads. Living in dreary circumstances, Ditie comes to terms with the inevitability of his death, and with his place in history.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:43 -0400)

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