I served the King of England
By Bohumil Hrabal
When I started to work at the Grand Hotel Prague, the boss took hold of my left ear, pulled me up, and said, You’re a busboy here, so you don’t hear anything and you don’t see anything. Repeat what I just said. So I said I wouldn’t see anything and I wouldn’t hear anything. Then the boss pulled me up by the right ear and said, But remember too that you’ve got to see everything and hear everything. Repeat it after me. I was taken aback, but I promised I would see everything and hear everything.
Read these first six sentences of ‘I served the King of England’ and in a sense you have read the whole book. All the essential elements which make this a modern masterpiece of political satire are displayed in this first paragraph. The language is simple, unadorned and direct; yet at the same time it is elegant, with the clever use of repetition and the balancing of ‘left’ and ‘nothing’ with ‘right’ and ‘everything’. This, along with the narrator’s seemingly unquestioning acceptance of this ambiguous instruction, sets the tone for the whole book, which is reminiscent of perhaps the greatest work ever of political satire, Voltaire’s ‘Candide’. The duplicity expressed in the opening section of Hrabal’s novel strikes a chord too with the Czech people, who, dominated by centuries of repressive foreign rulers, had learned to pay lip-service to authority while rebelling behind its back. The symbolism and imagery which permeates the rest of the novel are also signalled here, with the authoritarian hotel boss foreshadowing the dictatorial political regimes of the German occupation of 1938 to1945 and then post-war Communism, both of which are attacked vehemently later in the work.
The story is the biography of a hotel waiter who ensures his fortunes under different political regimes – a kind of Czech Vicar of Bray. He marries a Nazi woman, has a mentally deficient child, loses his wife in an air raid, sells valuable stolen stamps expropriated by his wife from Jewish victims of the holocaust, builds his own hotel, is imprisoned by the Communists as a millionaire, and is sent to work as a woodcutter in the forest. Eventually, he realises the emptiness of his youthful ambitions, abandoning both civilisation and people to look after his animals in the remote border regions of the country. But the plot is not what this book is about. The main challenge of this novel is to understand the irony and the allegory.
The irony of this novel is built on the childlike naivety of the narrator. This childishness is emphasised not only by his name, Dit’e- Child in Czech – and his small stature, but also by his simple and uncritical response to what the reader can see are truly appalling events. Like Candide, he seems to take it for granted that “everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds”. This naivety is reinforced by the simplicity of the language, which is a feature of Czech language literature typified by the fairy tales of the Capek brothers, so this writing style facilitates the personal identification of the author’s Czech audience with his main character. But allegory and symbolism also permeate the novel.
Every event that takes place is to be considered on two levels. First of all there is the literal, matter of fact level. But beyond that, everywhere there are symbols, everywhere parables and almost every sentence is a metaphor for something else.
The imagery works first by shocking us and then by puzzling us: he gets our attention but then we have to really think of what point the author is trying to make. What, for example, is the symbolism of the headless corpse of his wife that Dit’e buries? Often the imagery works in two stages: at first we have a slightly distasteful picture, but this is later is transferred into something really horrific which makes a telling point. One example is preparation of the Emperor’s feast, which begins with the distasteful gluttony of a series of animals stuffed inside one another, but then develops a sinister turn when the animals of the zoo are plundered and slaughtered to glorify the status of the Emperor and the greed of the great and good. And note too how Dit’e’s fey practice of spreading flowers in naked prostitute’s laps is transformed with his Nazi wife, when the flowers metamorphose into thorns. Then there’s the annoying hammering of Dit’e’s son, which becomes first of all a symptom of the mental deficiency of the child and then reappears as a psychological torture for the father. And what kinds of pictures are invoked in the reader by the incessant pointless hammering of nails into wooden floors?
But the reader should not only be sensible to the imagery, but also to the allegories. The novel is a series of parables. Those first sentences at the beginning of the novel are a parable: the parable of the ear-pulling. There are many others: the parable of the emperor’s feast, the parable of the Bolivian Child of Prague, the parable of the millionaire’s prison, the parable of the over-educated shop girl, to name just a few. These are parables where we are instructed not by example, but by counter-example: things are portrayed not as they should be, but as they shouldn’t. And what a plethora of moral and social criticisms we can take from them!
So what we have here is a simple book which is at the same time a deep book. Is it perhaps the cry of the supressed citizen in an oppressive authoritarian regime, a protest cry which deprived of the opportunity to scream explicitly, hides its rebellious criticisms in a work of extreme subtlety?
Contributed by James Gault Nov 2017