I have felt a compulsion to write for most of my life, or at least since I was in Junior school. I remember being eight and starting my first novel; I would add a chapter a day, with some help from Paul Williams, a classmate. I call it a compulsion because I don’t appear to be able to stop, regardless of where I am or what I have to hand. I have drawers full of scraps of paper, bus tickets, and post-it notes on which I have scribbled lines or ideas; my mobile phone has more notes stored on it than numbers; the space on my computer is almost entirely taken up with word documents. I don’t like to delete or throw any of this stuff away because, in a way, it is the story of my life, they document, albeit indirectly, who I was at the time of writing. Part of my reason for wanting to review was to be able to bear witness, to keep a record of my experiences. All of these things, if you compiled them, would, I guess, make up a bildungsroman for the modern age.
It was a running joke when I was on Goodreads that my reviews would begin with a lengthy personal anecdote, which I would, eventually, in a wildly tenuous fashion, eventually link to the book at hand. I guess this review is no different. I Served the King of England is also a bildungsroman of sorts. According to the narrator, Ditie, it was written for the same reasons that I write: as a document of his experiences, so that he can have a record of them. Like my writings it is a fragmented narrative, it is a life told in moments, or episodes; it is not a complex, detailed story. I Served the King of England is, in fact, what we call a shaggy-dog story. This is something Hrabal excelled at, at creating faux-naïve, simple-hearted characters that hop, skip, and occasionally stumble from one adventure to the next.
At the beginning of the narrative Ditie is a busboy at a hotel; by the end he is a road-mender. In between he becomes rich and a Nazi-sympathiser. Really, though, none of that is particularly important or engaging. What is great about I Served the King of England is Hrabal’s prose, Ditie’s voice, and, in particular, the often beautiful flights of fancy. Despite some darker moments the tone of the novel is mostly lighthearted, chatty and colloquial, like a more worldly-wise [i.e. base] Walser or less acerbic Celine. However, while Hrabal’s prose is easy to read, is seemingly straightforward, it is quietly, unassumingly sophisticated and sometimes poetic. It’s a really neat trick. Hrabal is what I would call a first-rate prose stylist. His novels are not always engrossing, plot-wise, but they are always brilliantly written, are enjoyable to read if you value craft and wit and insight and memorable lines over an exciting, fast-paced story.
I’ve seen numerous times, in reviews all over the internet, that people often prefer the second half of I Served the King of England, which deals with Ditie’s marriage to a German girl and subsequent involvement with the SS. However, for me, it’s the least successful part of the book. This is not because it is less stylish or less amusing than what came before, but because it is when Hrabal’s weaknesses as a writer are most apparent. Transitions are a problem; they are clunky and too random. Somehow the author has to make us believe that Ditie can go from being a wide-eyed hotel worker to a Nazi sympathiser, and yet Hrabal cannot pull it off. Our narrator just kind of does, without any real, or psychologically sound, justification.
These are, however, minor quibbles; and it is more satisfying to focus on the positive, which is why I will return to those flights of fancy. It is not oft mentioned by others but to my mind Hrabal was a surrealist or, if you prefer, a kind of magical realist. His work is, indeed, closer to Garcia Marquez than to his compatriot Kundera. Early in the novel there is a fight between some gypsies at one of the hotels where Ditie works; it is a random fight, without prelude, in which a great amount of blood is spilled and flesh lopped off. Hrabal describes the glinting of the knives used in the flight as like golden flies flying around the Golden Prague, which is oddly beautiful. There is, too, Ditie’s fetish for adorning the laps and genitals of his lovers with flowers, one of whom, while visiting him at work, pours grenadine over herself and walks out to an accompaniment of sugar-thirsty bees. I loved all of that stuff, and there is a lot more of it, but I won’t ruin the surprises for first-time readers by revealing more of them.
To conclude, then, although I Served the King of England does engage with serious issues, with politics and death, and the meaning of life, its greatest accomplishment is to be itself full of life, to be charming and funny. That is, for me, a more significant statement, is more important than anything Hrabal could have said about Czech life during the war, etc. There’s a character in the novel that has an uncanny ability to know things, to intuit things. Whenever he is asked how he, for example, knows that someone will order a soup just by looking at them, his reply is: because I once served the king of England. Hrabal, too, just seemed to know, to get it, to understand what life is about, what is important, what makes it beautiful or worthwhile; he must have served some pretty high-ranking people himself.