Unbeknownst to many in the rest of the world, Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal remains one of the most loved and admired figures in his native country. The picaresque novel I Served the King of England, usually considered his greatest masterpiece, is a delightful satire on the dark days of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and the years following the collapse of the Third Reich. The unlikely protagonist of this breezily paced book is Ditie, a diminutive but fiercely ambitious waiter who is completely apathetic to the political turmoils around him. The only things he cares about are, becoming a millionaire and intimacy with women. Written as a memoir by the comically built anti-hero, who is perennially under inferiority complex on account of the lack of respect from his peers due to his physical stature, Hrabal created an immensely humorous account of a man’s incredible journey through contemporary Czech history. As Ditie moves from one hotel to another, he doesn’t just learn the various tricks of the trade and has his bank balance growing, he also meets some of the most unique characters and has a plethora of fascinating experiences on his way. His lack of any form of conscience (political or otherwise) helps him survive the Nazi-ruled years, as he marries an ‘Aryan’ lady and inherits a fortune from her acquired through plundering the Jews. However, eventually, with the victory of Communism, he ends up returning to square one, and realization about the life he has led thus starts dawning on him during his harsh and lonely existence. Hrabal counterbalanced the strong political commentary and acerbic observations, with his endearing writing style, astounding wit, unforgettable humour, along with dollops of absurdism, charm and inimitable imagination – thus making this a hilarious, profoundly moving and a quietly melancholic read. Its movie adaptation by Czech maestro Jiri Menzel, too, was a lovely experience. Interestingly, Menzel’s greatest masterpieces, viz. Closely Watched Trains and Larks on a String, were also Hrabal adaptations.
Author: Bohumil Hrabal
Genre: Comedy/Political Satire/Picaresque Novel
Country: Czech Republic (erstwhile Czechoslovakia)