Wednesday, August 26, 2009
I Served the King of England
Bohumil Hrabal. Possibilities for puns thereon: Hrabalaisian, Hrabal without a cause, Day of the Hrabalment. I love the inscrutability of the Hrabal persona. Give your Czech a workout with the above youtube clip and find him drinking a beer down the pub (U Zlatého Tygra perhaps, the Golden Tiger) and reading the paper. The holy drinker, perhaps freshly back from the terraces of a third-division football game (I think of Ivan Blatný’s marvellous poem about football). Why, Bill Clinton and Václav Havel might even drop in. But Alexander the Great dropped in on Diogenes. What can I do for you sir? Stand out of the light. Get your round in.
Ditie, the protagonist’s name in I Served the King of England, means ‘child’, more or less. What could be more childish than his picaresque blunderings through life, latching onto some idiotic catchphrase as a way of explaining everything. The title, as one of those phrases, refers to a head waiter’s ability to tell in advance where a customer is from and what they’re going to order. And how does he know all these things? Because ‘I served the king of England’. Ditie doesn’t quite manage that, though he does serve the Emperor of Ethiopia, who eats a camel. He’s awarded a sash and a medal for his services too, which he likes to whip out as reminders of his rise in the world. Large burps in the fabric of history come and go (Nazism), or come and don’t go (Communism), and Ditie blunders through uncomprehendingly but with just enough peasant cunning to land on his feet. He marries a Nazi athlete and submits to a farcical inspection of his privates to ascertain their suitability for congress with an Aryan vagina. He is not on the list of millionaires for dispossession after the war by the Communists but insists on having himself added to it, in yet another attempt to prove himself to the social betters he feels are always snubbing him. He lives in a hut in the woods on his release and trains his German shepherd to go to the village and do his shopping, but the villagers shoot it because they miss his visits to the pub and want him to come back.
Throughout Hrabal there is a diastole-systole alternation between social routine and outbreaks of something more violent. The swaggering waiter who is knocked off balance, for instance, and drops two plates, but then smashes the rest, and starts destroying the whole hotel around him. Or artistic violence, as when a writer puts a knife to the narrator’s neck in Too Loud a Solitude and starts reciting a poem about nature (he can’t get people to listen to his work otherwise, as he apologetically explains afterwards). But even when something very gruesome does happen, we laugh. The Nazi wife dies in an air-raid and Ditie finds her decapitated body in the bank garden. But now we realize the meaning of the chapter title when he announces, despite digging up the whole courtyard in search of it, that ‘I never found the head’.
Or sometimes it doesn’t take any grisly-comic violence at all and Hrabal distils an image of pure surrealist innocence, like the floating tailor’s mannequins. The system is that the tailor makes a life-size mannequin for each of his customers, which he then inflates and allows to float up to the ceiling, where it is stored until his next visit. Ditie is enthralled:
All this made me long for a new tuxedo made by that company, and I was determined to buy one as soon as I got my waiter’s papers, so that I and my mannequin could float near the ceiling of a company that was certainly the only one of its kind in the world, since no one but a Czech could have come up with an idea like that. After that I often dreamed about how I personally, not my torso, was floating up there by the ceiling of the Pardubice tailoring firm, and sometimes I felt as though I were floating near the ceiling of the Golden City of Prague restaurant.
We leave him in his hut in the forest, baffling the locals with his talk of wanting to be buried on a hilltop so that half of his remains will be washed one way and half another, leaving him swimming in both the Black Sea and the North Seas. He may have served the Emperor of Ethiopia but he becomes an empire unto himself. He has quite possibly learned nothing at all from his experiences. He likes a drink and a bit of skirt, we learn, but we could have guessed that at the start.
Bohumil Hrabal, I salute you. I’d gladly have bought you a drink and allowed you to sell me the film rights to one of your books on a beer mat. I would have made the film too, needless to say.