I Served The King Of England

This novel by the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, written in 1971, consists of a series of impossible anecdotes strung around the life of the narrator, a waiter in Bohemia during the years around the Second World War. At first it’s merely fantastical and extravagant, but as the Nazis move into the story it strikes darker, as the narrator at first sticks up for (against the Czechs) and then marries (in the face of, though with special permission from, the Nazis) a blonde Aryan Nazi woman, who reduces their previously passionate sex life to an uebermensch reproductive puropse, bears a deranged son (banging nails into everything as the RAF bangs bombs into Europe) and then is killed in an air-raid, leaving the narrator a briefcase of immensely valuable stamps stripped from Jews on their way to the death camps, through the sale of which he is able to raise enough money to become rich and establish his dream hotel, which is then taken from him by the Communists.

If you think that was a long sentence you should read some of his.

How long is it since I have read a novel? I hardly know what to say. The narrator claims for most of the book to believe in the power of money but in the end it’s about inward riches, as he ends up mending roads in a remote corner of the Sudetenland mountains, living alone in an abandoned house with just a dog, a goat, a donkey and a cat for company. It’s fantastically written in both senses of the word fantastic, and his repeated catchphrase is about how the impossible became true. When you are starting from impossible premises I guess that’s not too hard, but (with the suspension of normal disbelief that must have been required to imagine that something like the Holocaust could really happen hovering in the background) it all doesn’t seem too far-fetched…

In real life Hrabal seems also to have dealt in the impossible becoming true: after the Velvet Revolution Vaclav Havel brought Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright to his local in Prague to meet him; after writing repeatedly about death by falling from a 5th floor window, and having witnessed one such death, that of a political prisoner, in the street, he then died by falling from a 5th floor window, apparently while feeding pigeons.

A shimmering and highly readable tale, in any case – and an illuminating take on the still unfathomable tragedy of 20th century central Europe….

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