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I Served the King of England Even More Intriguing on Screen than in the Book

April 1, 2010

I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal, translated by Paul Wilson
published by New Directions May 31, 2007 (originally published January 1, 1989)

After seeing the movie adaptation with my daughter, I read this novel for the Alphabet in Historical Fiction Challenge (H is for Hrabal)

Set in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in the period surrounding World War II, this satirical novel follows Ditie from a teenager to an aging man. He begins his career working as a busboy and peddling hot dogs at the train station. He often filches money from his train station customers, and he becomes obsessed with money and everything it can buy. Watching the wealthy patrons in the restaurant where he buses tables, he comes to believe that wealth can buy respect, companionship and a place in society. After saving his tips for some memorable visits to  a brothel, he concludes that it can also buy love.

Ditie works his way up and eventually waits tables in several elegant hotels. He is drawn to Zdenek, the head waiter in one of these restaurants, a fun-loving man who recklessly strews money wherever he goes. Another head waiter, Skrivanek, becomes his mentor. Skrivanek, who once waited on the king of England, has an uncanny ability to tell, just by looking at a customer, where he’s from and what he will order. When asked how he knows these things, he simply responds “I served the king of England.” In that restaurant, Ditie serves the emperor of Ethiopia. Later, when asked how he knew things (“How did you know Germany would end up at war with Russia after all?”), he’d reply “I served the emperor of Ethiopia.”

Ditie’s thirst for material success continues to grow. After the Nazis invade Czechoslovakia, he meets a young German woman named Lise, a passionate follower of Hitler. They decide to get married. After some digging into Ditie’s family history, to reveal that he has Aryan roots, Ditie submits to medical tests to prove that his sperm is “first-class and worthy of inseminating an Aryan vagina with dignity.” While he’s offering a sperm sample, fellow Czechs are being lined up and shot by Nazi soldiers. This reflects the tone and style of the whole novel — ridiculous, darkly funny things are tangled with moments that are purely tragic.

After Ditie and Lise marry, they set to work conceiving an Aryan child for the new Germany. They make their fortune as war profiteers, and after the war, Ditie eventually realizes his dream of being wealthy and owning a hotel. However when Communists seize control of the country, private property is confiscated. After a sentence in a hilariously relaxed minimum security prison, Ditie ends his life humbly working on rural roads.

I Served the King of England is written in a straightforward narrative style, without dialogue. At moments I thought the prose was beautiful, and at other times it felt tedious. The plot and characters, which ranged from quirky to insanely bizarre, held my interest from beginning to end. There is little sentiment in this novel. For example, while there are a few tender moments with Lise, Ditie never seems to connect with his wife or his developmentally disabled son. He talks about them in a detached way. And he is somewhat disconnected from the horrendous events he lives through, focused on his own life and his quest for wealth.

Later in the story, Ditie realizes the absurdity of his quest for wealth and prestige and enters an introspective stage of his life. As an old man, working on rural roads, he is finally sought out by local villagers for who he is, not what he has — they enjoy his knowledge and unusual outlook on life. I found his change in perspective interesting. For example, he remembers his old friend Zdenek, the head waiter who drew people to him by strewing his money. Now he remembers a different story: Zdenek was loved for his kindness and generosity, not for his material worth. Readers see the same story from a different angle, which gives us a sense of his metamorphosis.

On the other hand, at the end of his life, Ditie remains self absorbed and his awareness of the events he’s survived, the Nazi occupation and the rise of Communism in Eastern Europe, seems shallow. I completely understand why Publisher’s Weekly wrote “Ditie’s moral transformation is not entirely persuasive.” Maybe this is intentional, reflecting Hrabal’s gift for edgy satire. People’s obliviousness to what is happening around them is an important theme here. For instance, in an absurd scene that stands out in my mind, a knife fight among gypsies suddenly breaks out in the hotel where Ditie is working. At a nearby table, a patron happily reads a book while he is splattered with blood and body parts are strewn around.

I Served the King of England is well-crafted, disturbing, darkly funny, and unique. Though I didn’t fall in love with it, I recommend it to other readers. The author has a unique approach, blending Ditie’s memories, which change shape over time, with fun, racy hilarious scenes, and horrific moments which seem to strike abruptly.

Although I usually prefer to read a novel before seeing the film adaptation, in this case, I’m glad I saw the movie first. The film’s vivid imagery stayed with me throughout the book, and helped guide me through the narrative.

The movie, by Czech director Jiri Menzel, followed most of the novel closely, though it omitted or radically changed some important parts. It was true to Ditie’s character and the colorful, odd, darkly comic quality of the movie. The cinematography was lovely, making the film visually striking.. And if you happen to like images of food and naked or scantily clad women, you will be richly rewarded. 😛 The movie also didn’t lose Hrabal’s satirical edge. I agree with Roger Ebert:

Menzel doesn’t pound home his points. He skips gracefully through them, like his hero. He takes the velvet-glove approach. Here is a film with a hatred of Nazis and a crafty condemnation of communist bureaucracy and cronyism.

The movie actually offers a stronger indictment of the Czech communist government than the book, as Ditie’s treatment by them is much less benign in the film.

I liked both the novel and the movie adaptation of I Serve the King of England, but I enjoyed the movie more. The movie’s imagery more than compensated for the interesting details in the story that were left out of the film.

This movie is rated R for nudity and general naughtiness.

Where I Got the Book: I bought it.

Read More Book Reviews: Novel Insights, Book Snob,

Rating:

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. April 1, 2010 1:26 am

    Both the book and film sound enjoyable–thanks for sharing them! I probably wouldn't have stumbled across them otherwise!

  2. April 1, 2010 2:23 am

    I saw the movie, been meaning to read the book. Great review!

  3. April 1, 2010 7:28 am

    Yes, it's really sad that he never connected with his son or his wife.He was so very busy focusing on survival, especially in those times.Made me think lots about Maslow and self-actualisation.

  4. April 1, 2010 12:28 pm

    This sounds very different historical fiction and for this once I think I must watch this movie first. The plot is really intriguing. thanks for a great review.

  5. April 1, 2010 4:15 pm

    I don't know when I first heard about this book, but it just sounded so fun and yes, quirky. I'm glad you reminded me of it!

  6. April 2, 2010 2:21 am

    It's rare to enjoy the movie more than the book, but judging by your review, I can understand why. Brilliant thoughts 🙂

  7. April 2, 2010 6:26 pm

    That's too bad the prose was uneven, but it sounds worth reading all the same, and yes, very unique!

  8. April 2, 2010 11:37 pm

    This sounds awesome! Thanks for the review. I will add the link to the round up post for you!

  9. April 3, 2010 2:28 am

    I love the movie tie-in! This is quite intriguing and I'll definitely check it out. Thanks!

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