A "playful, social satire" I found quite distasteful.
Dec 24, 2009
On a recent vacation to Prague, I asked the proprietor of a local English language bookstore to recommend a novel that would be a good souvenir of my visit to Prague. She enthusiastically recommended "I Served the King of England" which she characterized as a comedic satire and added the guarantee that I would be sure to love it ... wrong!
The story takes place in Czechoslovakia from 1935 to 1950 during the final days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when Czechoslovakia tragically loses its freedom first to the armies of Nazi Germany and then to the Communist regime under Marx and Lenin.
Bohumil Hrabal's "I Served the King of England" is the story of a Ditie - a small man in every respect including stature - personal vision, abilities, scope of imagination, interests and even charitable inclinations to his fellow Czechs. It is the story of his rise from the bottom of the hospitality pecking order as a much maligned hotel busboy to a millionaire and the owner of his own unique hand-crafted hotel. It is the story of his fall from that pinnacle of wealth back into poverty as war takes away everything that he worked for including his wife, his son, his hotel, his wealth and the respect of his peers that he had unsuccessfully searched for all of his life.
My personal impression of Ditie as a character is that he is small-minded and selfish, focused on little else than the accumulation of wealth by any means, his social position in the eyes of his peers and the satisfaction of a powerful libido. He began his rise to power by stealing change from customers and he completed the accumulation of his first million by selling rare stamps purloined from Jewish prisoners who had been transported to concentration camps. In short, I found Ditie to be a most unlikable protagonist.
As a novel, "I Served the King of England" was irreverent, treating the horrific events of WW II and the Nazi and Communist occupation of Czechoslovakia with an outrageous, mocking comedic lightheartedness that was out of place and verging on the abhorrent.
The only redeeming feature of the entire novel is the heartwarming and heartbreaking story of his love for Lise, a German girl, who is despised by all of Ditie's Czech acquaintances.
Insofar as its being a souvenir of my visit to Prague goes ... suffice it to say that many Czechoslovakian place names were mentioned, but nothing about the narrative, the history, the description or the action in the novel was particularly evocative of the setting of such a magnificent city. But for the context of the war itself, the story could have happened anywhere at all!
Overall, my impression is that "I Served the King of England" is a self-proclaimed literary novel that attempts to turn Ditie's flaws into something charming. I'm not buying it at all.
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