A World A Few Degrees Of Whimsy Away From Our Own
Anthony Marra is the author of A Constellation Of Vital Phenomena.
Ditie, the narrator of Bohumil Hrabal's transcendent novel, I Served the King of England, is described in the jacket copy as "a hugely ambitious but simple waiter in a deluxe Prague hotel." I first crossed paths with him when I, myself, was working as a night porter in a deluxe Edinburgh hotel.
It was the kind of place you'd stay at if you came to Scotland to, say, buy a castle. I carried a guitar for The Strokes, fetched golf clubs for Ron Howard, and once found myself in the suite of a half-dressed, tumescent millionaire who needed help renting adult films on the hotel television. But from two to four in the morning, I escaped into Hrabal's gorgeous and dizzying fiction. I Served the King of England is a strange, beguiling, at times trying novel that is unlike anything I've ever read.
Flipping through the book, you'll find little white space. Paragraph breaks occur so infrequently you might mistake them for typographical errors. But fear not, dear reader! Hrabal's prose appears to possess black-hole densities, but if you allow yourself to be sucked in, you'll enter a story so ethereal you'll practically float.
Trying to summarize Served's plot is a bit like trying to stuff a sleeping bag into a coin purse. It spans decades, beginning in the interwar adolescence of its Czech narrator, a scampish hotel waiter perpetually short on the money, prestige, and vertical height he desperately wants.
In the opening pages, it becomes clear that Ditie's world is angled away from our own by a few degrees of whimsy. Here, salami scale salesmen are the personification of material power. Tailors make suits based on balloon replicas of their clients's torsos, and then release the balloon torsos to join on the ceiling the multitude of their headless brethren. Poets measures print runs by the length of road their books could pave.
Ditie is hapless in all the right ways, naive, sincere, and a consummate raconteur. If readerly sympathy is born from the marriage of a character's vulnerabilities and desires, than Ditie just might be the most sympathetic narrator you'll ever meet. Hrabal nails the upstairs-downstairs dynamic found at high-end hotels, where some trace of a celebrated guest's renown rubs off on the waiters, or porters, who serve him. Ditie doesn't serve the king of England, but he does serve the Emperor of Ethiopia, for which he receives a blue sash and an experience that comes to define him.
However, halfway through the novel, the major catastrophes of the mid-century loom on the Central European horizon. Ditie falls in love with a German gym teacher who hails from a town in the recently annexed Sudetenland. A fool in love, and a fool in general, he becomes a willing collaborator when the Germans occupy Czechoslovakia.
Despite having blond hair and blue eyes, he is required to undergo fertility tests to ensure that his genetic material is pure enough to inseminate a Teutonic womb. As he stands with his pants around his ankles in the office of a German eugenicist, Ditie finds himself unable to, well, cooperate because he can only summon the image of his executed countrymen.
When he is finally cleared to have sex with his wife, she plays Wagner operas for mood music. The child conceived to the trumpets of Valhalla is born with cognitive impairments and becomes obsessed with hammering nails, turning the wooden floors of Ditie's home into studded metal sheets in a bizarre prophesy of the Allied bombs that will soon destroy the home entirely.
The fate of Ditie's wife and child are the dark star around which the major pieces in the second half of the novel — a suitcase of invaluable stamps stolen from Polish Jews, a hotel ownership that fulfills all of Ditie's ambitions, the communist takeover, and Ditie's ceaseless search for atonement — orbit, and eventually, irrevocably converge.
If that sounds dire, let me say that I Served the King of England is more magical than harrowing. It may not be for everyone — but it is a novel that proves true the words proffered to Ditie by a sagacious salami scale salesman: "Just remember, my boy, if life works out just a tiny bit in your favor it can be beautiful, just beautiful."
For a few hours in an Edinburgh hotel, after I polished leather shoes and luggage carts, I could always count on this novel to work out in my favor, beautifully.
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